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Decline in health visitors having knock-on negative impact on breastfeeding support

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Nearly one in three health visitors say their ability to support breastfeeding mothers has reduced in recent years, according to a new survey that reveals the impact of public health cuts.

The survey of almost 800 health visitors, carried out by the Institute of Health Visiting (iHV) within the past week, found 28% said their capacity to support new mums with breastfeeding had decreased in the past two years.

“Once again, we quantify the devastating effects of the cuts to public health budgets”

Cheryll Adams

Meanwhile, the same proportion said they were not confident other members of their team such as nursery nurses or peer supporters would be able to help mothers when they could not.

Around half of the health visitors who took part in the survey reported cuts to specialist breastfeeding support services, while a similar percentage said breastfeeding support groups had been cut and also reported cuts to peer support programmes.

The worrying findings were unveiled today at a conference on the topic of breastfeeding hosted by the iHV and World Breastfeeding Trends Initiative (WBTi), held at the Royal Society for Public Health.

Boosting breastfeeding has long been a public health priority in the UK, yet rates remain stubbornly low when compared to other countries.

“Every health visiting area should also have an associated trained peer support system”

Clare Meynell

When asked about the most common reasons why mothers stop breastfeeding before they plan to, 64% of health visitors said it was due to the attitudes of other people around breastfeeding mums.

However, many said a lack of support was to blame, with 58% highlighting a lack of professional support.

Meanwhile, 57% said breastfeeding did not have a high enough national profile and 44% said there was a lack of motivation to continue.

Cheryll Adams, executive director of the iHV, said the survey findings reflected the impact of cuts to public health budgets and warned things were likely to get worse.

“Once again, we quantify the devastating effects of the cuts to public health budgets which started in 2015,” she said.

“We know that this situation will worsen up until 2020,” she said. “Such cuts are so counterproductive to the public’s health.

“Giving every baby the best possible start in life has many benefits for their health throughout life,” she added.

Shirley Cramer, chief executive of the Royal Society for Public Health, said that cuts were “hampering the capacity of health visitors” to deliver vital early support.

Cheryll Adams

Cheryll Adams

Cheryll Adams

Clare Meynell, WBTi joint coordinator, also highlighted that health visitors were the “lynchpin” of community support for breastfeeding mothers but needed back-up.

“Many mothers need more time and practical one to one guidance to get breastfeeding off to a good start,” she said.

“Every health visiting area should also have an associated trained peer support system to support new mothers through the common ups and downs of life with a new baby,” said Ms Meynell.

“In addition, some mothers with complex circumstances will require an access pathway to specialist support, such as a lactation consultant,” she noted.

She said families needed a “warm chain of support” and skilled guidance every step of the way along their “feeding journey”.

“That means all the way through pregnancy, birth, home from hospital, in the community and back to work,” she said.

“All of us have a responsibility to ensure the chain remains unbroken with a wide range of support in place for mothers and babies,” she added.

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