Low breastfeeding rates in the UK are costing the NHS millions of pounds every year, a charity has warned.
Unicef UK said that increasing breastfeeding rates would reduce illness and save money for the health service.
It estimates that moderate increases in breastfeeding could see potential annual savings of up to £40 million.
It also said there would be a reduction in the number of cases of breast cancer, and fewer cases of gastroenteritis and respiratory problems in babies.
The children’s charity said that new mothers should be offered more support to encourage breastfeeding. It said that support currently offered by the health service was “patchy”.
“We want to see breastfeeding recognised as a major public health issue from government level through to local children’s centres, and appropriate investment and legislation put in place to give mothers a better experience of breastfeeding,” said Unicef UK deputy executive director Anita Tiessen.
The charity said there should be public awareness campaigns to make mothers aware of the benefits of breastfeeding. It also said there should be legislation to prevent formula companies undermining breastfeeding.
The research estimates if 45% of all babies were exclusively breastfed for four months, and if 75% of babies in neonatal units were breastfed at discharge there would be 3,285 fewer babies hospitalised with gastroenteritis every year.
There would also be 21,045 fewer GP visits for ear infections and 5,916 fewer babies hospitalised with respiratory illness, the charity said.
Cathy Warwick, chief executive of the Royal College of Midwives, said: “We know, because women tell us, that many of them do not get the support and help they need in the early postnatal period from midwives. There are many strategies that can be put in place to improve breast feeding rates including increasing support from other women.
“However, if we are to deliver both the potential health and economic benefits that increased breast feeding will bring, we must ensure there are enough midwives and trained support workers to give women the help and advice they need throughout and beyond pregnancy.”