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The UK has the lowest rate of breastfeeding in the world, with only one in 200 women breastfeeding their children after they reach their first birthday, according to new research published in The Lancet.
Swansea University Professor, Dr Amy Brown, has cited social pressures as one of the main factors affecting the low levels of breastfeeding in the UK and has called for greater support for new mothers to start and continue breastfeeding.
Professional policy advisor at the Royal College of Midwives (RCM), Sarah Fox, said: “There has been significant and reliable evidence produced over recent years to show that breastfeeding has important health advantages for both baby and mother. The RCM believes that breastfeeding is the best way to get the baby off to a good start in life and has a positive impact on mother- baby relationships and bonding.
“Developing a culture of positive support for breastfeeding women right across society is the key to enabling them to initiate and sustain breastfeeding, while educating the wider public through campaigns also has an important role to play.
“The important issue is to ensure that women have access to skilled advice and support to help them to initiate and sustain breastfeeding. With the continuing shortage of midwives in England sometimes the NHS struggles to give women the advice and help around breastfeeding that they need and deserve.”
The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends exclusive breastfeeding up to six months of age, with continued breastfeeding along with appropriate complementary foods up to two years of age or beyond. Breastfeeding mothers should also be provided with accurate information and have the support of their family, the healthcare system and society at large.
While increasing the UK's breastfeeding rates could save the NHS up to £40m a year, it is thought that more than a quarter of mothers never start breastfeeding in the first place, in spite of NHS guidance saying that breast milk can protect babies against infection as well as diabetes, obesity and even cancer later in life.
According to Dr Brown, breastfeeding can become “overwhelming” for new mothers who are put under social pressure to get their pre-pregnancy lives back. She suggested that the practice, which should be seen as part of the natural process of having a baby, has been “abandoned”.
She said: “We have known that breastfeeding rates aren’t great in the UK for a long time. We have about 80 per cent of women starting breastfeeding at birth, but by the end of the first week, over half of those babies have had formula in some way.
“Breastfeeding should be normal behaviour. However, in this country it sparks high levels of debate in the press and online – much of which can be highly critical of breastfeeding or examples of when a mother has experienced a problem when feeding her child this way.
“Despite the promotion that 'breast is best', we do not follow it up with actions to support new mothers.”