It is a major talking point throughout pregnancy and early motherhood – how will you feed your baby? Yet while 80 percent of mums in the UK intend to breastfeed their babies, many soon stop or struggle to start at all, meaning we have some of the lowest breastfeeding rates in the world.
According to UNICEF’s Baby Friendly Initiative, only 17 percent of UK babies are exclusively breastfed at three months, which drops to one percent at six months.
The same report found that eight out of ten mothers in the UK stopped breastfeeding before they wanted to, and states that “this is a public health imperative for which government, policy makers, businesses, communities and families all share responsibility”.
RELATED: 5 benefits of breastfeeding for mums
So why are the UK breastfeeding rates so low? The answer is, it’s complicated. There are thought to be many factors at play, including the stigma around feeding in public, and crucially, a lack of support.
While breastfeeding is a natural process, it is something that both mum and baby need to learn to ensure baby has an effective and comfortable latch, and mum isn’t experiencing any pain. Ideally, new mums will be able to initiate breastfeeding within the ‘golden hour’ after giving birth; that first precious hour of skin-to-skin time and bonding time for parents and their baby, which can help to establish milk supply and crucially, has a link to mums breastfeeding for longer.
However, for some women this isn’t possible due to factors such as medical interventions for either them and/or their babies, and they may not be given the support they need later to establish breastfeeding as they hoped.
Meanwhile, government cuts in 2015 meant that funding for many breastfeeding support services were lost, and with the current global pandemic causing the majority of face to face appointments with health visitors to stop in many areas, women simply aren’t getting the help they need.
A lack of professional support is also not helped by misinformation and myths about breastfeeding among the community. Concerns about a baby’s weight gain may lead to women being advised to supplement with formula rather than being helped to boost their supply, or myths about bottle fed babies sleeping longer than breastfed babies can lead sleep-deprived parents to reach for formula in the hope of a better night’s sleep, when actually little evidence has been found to support it.
The plethora of Instagram posts shared to mark World Breastfeeding Week in August highlighted the complicated relationships many mothers have with breastfeeding, with lots of women talking about the struggles they faced throughout their journey, such as missed tongue tie causing latching issues, medical professionals encouraging formula when mums asked for help with issues such as mastitis or thrush, and a lack of access to health professionals for support.
IBCLC Lucy Webber summed up why breastfeeding is such an emotive topic in an Instagram post, saying of the 80 percent of mothers who had to stop breastfeeding before they wanted to: “They’ve been let down. Let down by the healthcare service they should be able to trust in to get expert advice. Let down by the laws that allow formula and bottle feeding to absolutely dominate the infant feeding world.
“Let down by a society who have lost touch with normal baby behaviour and completely undermine breastfeeding, and our ability to make milk. Let down by the hugely profitable sleep training industry. Let down by the lack of research into how best to support breastfeeding and why.”
She continued: “Let down by the misinformation that is everywhere you turn. Let down by the lack of availability of really well trained specialists. Let down by the ever increasing baby product market that encourages us to become more and more detached from our parenting instincts. Let down by the media for turning this all into an argument to make entertainment.”
Her post showed that there are so many factors that impact on a mother’s breastfeeding journey beyond a choice of wanting to or not, and it is going to take a lot of changes – from government provisions to societal attitudes – to help our breastfeeding rates improve.
What do you think would help the UK breastfeeding rates improve?