More effort must made to ensure breastfeeding support is targeted at mothers who need it the most, midwives have said after the latest breastfeeding figures for Scotland have revealed ongoing inequalities.
The latest official NHS figures show breastfeeding rates in Scotland have increased slightly over the past ten years.
Nearly half – 49% - of babies born in 2015/16 were being breastfed at their first health visitor check at about 10 days old and 38% were breastfed at their six-to-eight week review.
“It is good news that breastfeeding rates have not fallen over the past decade but real effort is needed to increase them”
However, the figures, published by the Information Services Division, show breastfeeding rates continue to be lower in more deprived areas and among younger mothers.
In the most deprived areas, 34% of mothers were breastfeeding at the first health visitor visit, and 24% by the six-to-eight week review.
Meanwhile, in the most affluent areas breastfeeding rates were at almost 60% by the six-to-eight week review. Among this group, there has been an increase in mixed feeding- through breastfeeding and formula milk - and a decline in exclusive breastfeeding.
The figures also showed significant regional variations in breastfeeding rates across Scotland, which it has bene suggested may reflect levels of deprivation, differences in local support services and practice or possibly the timing of baby checks.
“It is good news that breastfeeding rates have not fallen over the past decade but real effort is needed to increase them,” said Gillian Smith, the Royal College of Midwives’ director for Scotland.
“These figures show that serious efforts need to be made to tackle the inequality in Scotland and to target resources at those sections of the community suffering from poverty and deprivation. It is often these groups for whom breastfeeding will bring the greatest benefits,” she added.
”Serious efforts need to be made to tackle the inequality in Scotland and to target resources at those sections of the community suffering from poverty”
She said she was also concerned about regional variations.
The figures show initial rates of exclusive breastfeeding – where babies just get breast milk – range from 23.7% in NHS Lanarkshire to 57.8% in NHS Shetland.
Exclusive breastfeeding rates at six to eight weeks vary from 6.8% in NHS Ayrshire & Arran to 47.3% in NHS Shetland.
“We need to know why there are such large differences and then take steps to eradicate them,” said Ms Smith.
Her comments come amid UK-wide concern about breast-feeding rates and what some have dubbed a breastfeeding “crisis” due to cuts to public health budgets.
Earlier this year a group of academics and organisations representing health visiting, paediatrics, midwifery and family services wrote an open letter to government expressing concern over figures showing UK breastfeeding rates at 12 months after birth were the worst in the world.
Later in the year, in an interview with Nursing Times Public Health England’s maternity and early years lead Alison Burton acknowledged rates of mothers continuing to breastfeed in England “were not as good as we’d like them to be”.
However, she denied there was a “crisis” in support and said boosting rates was about “more than just speciality input” from professionals like midwives and that it was important to ensure mothers could access informal help.