The first week of August is World Breastfeeding Awareness Week, organised by the World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action. Its aim is to highlight the benefits that breastfeeding can have on both the health and welfare of babies and mothers.
A study conducted by The Lancet medical journal in 2016 confirmed that only 1 in 200 British babies were breastfed until they were 12 months old. This is despite NHS advice that babies should be breastfed exclusively for the first six months and from six months onwards, breastfeeding should be combined with the introduction of solid food. Comparatively, 7% of babies are breastfed for the first 12 months in the US, 35% in Norway, 44% in New Zealand and 92% in India. So why are the majority of British women not breastfeeding for the recommended amount of time?
This article is not about the controversial debate of whether ‘breast is best’: mothers should be able to make their own informed decision about whether to bottle feed or breastfeed their child without judgement. Instead it is about the fact that while 80% of mothers breastfed their child at some point, only 34% maintained this until the baby was six months old. So why do women who choose to breastfeed decide to stop before the recommended age?
The NHS strongly promotes breastfeeding due to health benefits for both mother and baby. The Lancet study, led by experts at the World Health Organisation and UNICEF, found that infection and conditions such as childhood obesity and diabetes could be significantly reduced through breastfeeding. Breastfeeding was also proven to reduce the risk of sudden infant death by up to a third and the risk of breast cancer in mothers.
During pregnancy, most mothers-to-be focus on the imminent arrival of their new baby and, if they have decided to breastfeed, they probably do not anticipate any potential difficulties. Unfortunately, however, breastfeeding is not always straightforward and there can be various barriers and challenges faced by new mothers. Physical difficulties can include problems with the baby's latch, painful chapped and bleeding nipples and conditions such as mastitis. It can be emotionally and physically exhausting and a huge commitment for mothers, with young babies often feeding on demand or cluster feeding for hours. Society’s attitude towards breastfeeding can also be a barrier, with many new mothers fearing the reaction they may get for doing it publicly. All of these difficulties and complications can affect a new mother's ability to continue breastfeeding. For some women, there is very little help and support available and if difficulties are not addressed, they are likely to give up breastfeeding altogether.
Sarah Gubbins, an associate in Penningtons Manches LLP’s clinical negligence team, commented: “It is shocking to read that the UK has some of the lowest breastfeeding rates in the world. Sadly NHS funding cuts mean that many new mothers decide they cannot continue breastfeeding simply because the necessary help is not available. Despite the NHS’s promotion of the benefits of breastfeeding, accessing support can be a real postcode lottery, with some women having little or no assistance.
“If breastfeeding rates are to improve in the UK, it is important to raise awareness and campaign for women to get the practical help and reassurance they need. Improving a mother’s breastfeeding experience can be as simple as suggesting an alternative feeding position in order to improve comfort, or building confidence so that she feels able to breastfeed in public. With the right support networks in place, mothers can choose the appropriate time for them to stop breastfeeding, rather than making the decision because of the barriers they face that they cannot overcome alone.”