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‘Chatbot’ launched to provide online breastfeeding support

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Public Health England has launched a new online “breastfeeding friend chatbot” designed to support and encourage new mothers to keep breastfeeding.

Those behind the new service say it provides a quick and easy way for mothers to get advice on breastfeeding round the clock, and comes at a time when midwives and health visitors have highlighted the impact of swingeing cuts to public health budgets on the availability of breastfeeding support.

“Mothers need all the support they can get”

Jacque Gerrard

The initiative’s launch follows a survey of 500 mothers of young children commissioned by Public Health England, which found many were worried about various aspects of breastfeeding.

Meanwhile, the latest official breastfeeding figures for 2016-17 from NHS England and Public Health England show just over 70% of women start breastfeeding when their child is born. But this drops to about 44% within six to eight weeks.

The new interactive resource – the Breastfeeding Friend Chatbot or BFF – has been launched as part of Public Health England’s Start4Life programme to encourage mothers, fathers and expectant parents to adopt healthy lifestyles.

Accessed via Facebook Messenger using Android or iPhones, tablets or computers, the tool is designed to provide personal support for mothers and deal with their concerns or questions at any time of the day or night, responding automatically as if the user was chatting to a real person.

Viv Bennett

Viv Bennett

Viv Bennett

“Mums tell us that after the first few week breastfeeding becomes easier, so proper support is crucial at this time, which is where our BFF is designed to help,” said Professor Viv Bennett, chief nurse at Public Health England.

The survey of mothers found more than half were worried their baby was either getting too much or not enough milk. Nearly three in 10 worried that their baby might not be getting the right nutrients, which may be one reason why mothers stop breastfeeding early on.

Public health minister Nicola Blackwood said the BFF was a “quick and easy way for mums to get help and information that complements the ongoing support from their midwifery team and health visitor”.

Jacque Gerrard, director for England at the Royal College of Midwives, said it was important to get infant feeding right and “mothers need all the support they can get”.

“It is important that midwives and maternity support workers continue to promote breastfeeding,” she said. “Any initiative that goes towards helping mothers tart and sustain breastfeeding for longer than is positive, as we know the health benefits from being breastfed last a lifetime.”

Nicola blackwood 3x2

Nicola blackwood 3x2

Nicola Blackwood

The survey confirmed mothers still feel concerned about breastfeeding in public, with 63% saying they felt embarrassed breastfeeding in the presence of strangers.

However, it also showed mothers were inspired by the example of celebrities like TV presenter Fearne Cotton and Sam Faiers, best known for appearing on the reality show The Only Way is Essex, who have championed breastfeeding on social media.

Nearly half of mothers who took part in the poll – 49% – said they had been inspired to breastfeed themselves by celebrity mums.

  • To start a chat with the Start4Life BreastFeeding Friend, visit m.me/Start4LifeBreastFeedingFriend or click on a Start4Life Facebook ad, or visit facebook.com/Start4LifeBreastFeedingFriend and click Send Message underneath the cover photo

More information on the survey

TNS data was collected from 500 breastfeeding mothers on behalf of Public Health England in October 2016.

The statements about breastfeeding that women most agreed with in the Start4Life survey were that:

  • It could be painful (74%)
  • It could prevent me from taking medication (71%)
  • I wouldn’t be able to tell if my baby was getting enough/too much milk (54%)
  • It could tie me down and stop me doing what I want to (51%)
  • I may have to eat a special diet (49%)
  • I couldn’t take the birth control pill (37%)
  • Women with breast implants are not able to breastfeed (29%)
  • My baby may not be getting the necessary nutrients (27%)
  • Some women’s breasts can be too small to be able to breastfeed (24%)
  • It could stop me exercising (24%)
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