Supporting breastfeeding

We know what works; let's make it happen

28 February 2017

Today, yet more research was published highlighting that when breastfeeding support is offered to women, the duration and exclusivity of breastfeeding is increased.

Importantly, this research reinforced the message that support should be offered by a trained person (midwife, health visitor, or volunteer), face to face, at a time when the mother is expecting it, tailored to her needs, ongoing and delivered through the antenatal and postnatal period. Read the Cochrane Special Collection on Enabling Breastfeeding, particularly “Support for healthy breastfeeding mothers with healthy term babies.”

It’s an important message for us all; health care providers, policy makers and the community.  Each mother needs sensitive, consistent and reliable support from pregnancy through to the first weeks and months of her baby’s life. She needs someone to believe that her wish to breastfeed is important, and to believe that she can do it.

But knowing what works, and repeatedly publicising it, hasn’t always translated into action. Too often conversations about breastfeeding descend into guilt, blame and judgement, when really, every mother, regardless of feeding type is doing the best they can for their child. The problem is, those who want to breastfeed are not being enabled to do so – eight out of 10 women stop breastfeeding before they want to. Now the UK has some of the lowest breastfeeding rates in the world, and the health and wellbeing of mothers and children are suffering.

For breastfeeding to work, you need someone to turn to who believes it’s important and believes you can do it.
Sue Ashmore, Programme Director, The Baby Friendly Initiative

As our Call to Action campaign highlights, we need to recognise that the UK’s low breastfeeding rates are a public health issue, not the responsibility of individual mothers to tackle. We need to “mother our mothers,” and take action to enable them to breastfeed for as long as they wish.

What support does a mother need to breastfeed?

We need to be there for mothers’ whole journey from pregnancy to new parenthood. Sensitive conversations during pregnancy, skilled help after birth, ongoing guidance and social support are all needed to enable mothers to feel confident and breastfeed successfully. We also need to create a welcoming public environment, so that women feel comfortable breastfeeding in public and in the workplace.

Support needs to be:

  • Mother-centred
  • Face-to-face
  • Ongoing
  • Predictable
  • Non-judgemental

Whilst The Baby Friendly Initiative is improving breastfeeding support in healthcare settings, recent staff shortages in maternity services and cuts to health visiting services undermine this success. As NCT’s recent Support Overdue report shows, two thirds of mothers had infant feeding concerns that they were unable to raise because of midwife shortages: “[The midwives] were working so hard, there just weren’t enough of them to go round.”

With existing services under threat, breastfeeding rates are likely to fall further. This is really worrying for the health of our children, given the overwhelming evidence that breastfeeding protects them from a whole host of illnesses well into adulthood. The UK ranks 15 out of 19 Western European countries on infant mortality, with huge health inequalities between rich and poor communities. Increasing the number of babies who are breastfed could tackle these issues and cut the incidence of common childhood illnesses, saving the NHS at least £50 million each year. That’s money that could be used to invest in breastfeeding support and protect both child and maternal wellbeing.

It’s crucial that breastfeeding support is protected, to make sure our children have the best possible chance to thrive.

What can I do to support breastfeeding?

There are many organisations speaking up about the need to protect breastfeeding support:

Further reading

Breastfeeding practices are highly responsive to interventions delivered in health systems, communities, and homes. The largest effects are achieved when interventions are delivered in combination.
Lancet Breastfeeding Series, 2016