Specialist professional support for breastfeeding is important but more work needs to be done to improve informal help for mothers if rates are to rise nationally, a leading early years advisor has said.
Public Health England’s maternity and early years lead, Alison Burton, acknowledged rates of breastfeeding continuation among mothers in England “are not as good as we’d like them to be” in comparison with other countries.
“There is more we need to do as a society at all levels about how we talk about breastfeeding”
She denied recent claims of a “crisis” in breastfeeding support in the UK but said there was variation in provision of services across the country.
PHE’s own data for England in 2014-15 shows that while 74% of mothers try breastfeeding, by 8 weeks after birth only 43% have continued.
Recent figures published in The Lancet journal showed UK breastfeeding rates at 12 months after birth were the worst in the world,
This prompted a letter by academics and health visiting and midwifery organisations to ministers about a breastfeeding support “crisis” which they claimed was being worsened by cuts to local council public health funding.
Speaking to Nursing Times as part of Breastfeeding Awareness Week Ms Burton said: “Specialist support is really important but if we are going to shift our rates at a population level it’s going to be more than just speciality input – it’s going to be a whole systems approach.”
“Mums tell us when they are having difficulty getting their baby to latch on or worried they don’t have any milk, that doesn’t necessarily happen when the nurse or midwife is around,” she said.
“So making sure they have confidence and knowledge and are able to access informal support is also critically important,” she added.
She acknowledged there were challenges with public health funding but that there were many ways to provide support to mothers that did not cost a lot of money.
Call for ‘whole systems approach’ to up breastfeeding
“In a lot of areas they’ve got really good peer support programmes, volunteer baby cafes. So, with those sort of approaches they don’t necessarily have to cost a lot of money,” she said.
Ms Burton also noted the UK often lacked community support for mothers from their peers, which other countries tended to have. She said “cultural” changes were also needed in the UK’s attitude to breastfeeding.
“In our country we tend to see breastfeeding as the individual woman’s choice. We don’t necessarily see it in the same way as it’s seen in other countries, particularly in developing countries where it’s an important public health intervention and saves babies’ lives.
“Here, because we’re not talking about mums making up formula milk with dirty water it’s not seen as prevention,” she added.
“While I agree healthcare services are really important, for this particular issue I don’t think that is just the answer,” said Ms Burton.
“There is more we need to do as a society at all levels about how we talk about breastfeeding, promote images of infant feeding, make it more acceptable and stop the dialogue about individual mother responsibility,” she said.