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Warning of UK breastfeeding 'crisis' amid public health cuts

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A breastfeeding “crisis” in the UK has emerged due to a lack of support for mothers, as services are cut amid public health budget constraints, it has been claimed.

Academics and organisations representing health visiting, paediatrics, midwifery and family services raised concerns following recent statistics that showed UK breastfeeding rates at 12 months after birth are the lowest in the world.

“The breastfeeding crisis in the UK is in fact a crisis of lack of support for those mothers”

Open letter

In an open letter to ministers, they noted the figures – published in The Lancet journal – did not recognise the rates of women beginning breastfeeding were “relatively high” in the UK, at around 80%.

But this “plummets” in the months and weeks following birth, noting most mothers said they stopped breastfeeding before they wanted to, they warned.

“The breastfeeding crisis in the UK is in fact a crisis of lack of support for those mothers who choose to breastfeed. The result is that many mothers decide, reluctantly, that they must use infant formula,” they said.

Support services for breastfeeding mothers are being cut across the country, with many under threat of closure, the groups claimed.

They also pointed to the recent in-year £200m reduction to local authority public health budgets in England.

“It is little wonder then that local authorities – newly charged with responsibility for public health services – are looking for savings wherever they can, and closing down the very services that help mothers to continue breastfeeding,” said the letter.

“Britain has one of the lowest levels of breastfeeding…we worry that things will get much worse with budget cuts”

Russell Viner

In addition, the Department of Health has just announced a further total £77m of cuts to public health budgets for 2016-17.

More than 30 signatories supported the letter including the Institute of Health Visiting, the Community Practitioners’ and Health Visitors’ Association, the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, and the Royal College of GPs.

They urged the UK governments to end the crisis by taking action on a number of issues, including protecting local councils’ public health budgets for health visiting and breastfeeding support services.

A UK breastfeeding committee was also called for, to implement a national strategy on breastfeeding.

New laws to protect mothers against “aggressive” marketing campaigns from infant formula and measures to ensure employers provide breaks for breastfeeding or expressing milk must also be introduced, they said.

Cheryll Adams, executive director of the IHV, said the uptake of breastfeeding was a “major public health issue”.

“The UK must address its very disappointing figures as a first step in also addressing many other health issues improved by breastfeeding”

Cheryll Adams

“The UK must address its very disappointing figures, laid bare by The Lancet, as a first step in also addressing many other health issues improved by breastfeeding, including the challenging year on year increase in childhood obesity which it can protect against,” she said.

Russell Viner, officer for health promotion for the RCPCH, said: “Britain has one of the lowest levels of breastfeeding compared to other rich countries – we worry that things will get much worse with government’s proposed budget cuts.”

“Government’s proposed slashing of the public health budget by £200m [in England] places a major barrier in front of efforts to improve breastfeeding rates,” he said. “Health visiting services will no doubt suffer as a consequence and these are the very people who work with families during the crucial early days and months of a child’s life.

“We, therefore, call on government to do a U-turn, safeguard these services and improve the lives of thousands of vulnerable children in the process,” he added.

In a statement, Public Health England chief executive Duncan Selbie said: ”The reduction in the public health grant is challenging. However since taking on public health responsibilities local authorities have done outstanding work in making best use of their resources and demonstrating great innovation.”

“Public Health England is working closely with local authorities to ensure that the reduction in the grant over the next five years is conducted in a way that is consistent with the conditions of the public health grant and keeping its main and primary purpose focused on improving the public’s health,” he added.

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