What has breastfeeding got to do with poverty?

Home > What has breastfeeding got to do with poverty?

Last week, Sustain UK launched a new report profiling food poverty in London. Find out why breastfeeding, and the Baby Friendly Initiative, is an important part of tackling food poverty.

“Breastfeeding is a natural safety net against the worst effects of poverty,” said James P. Grant, Executive Director of Unicef, 1980-1995. It was true then, and it is equally true today.

He continued: “Exclusive breastfeeding goes a long way towards cancelling out the health difference between being born into poverty or being born into affluence.

“It is almost as if breastfeeding takes the infant out of poverty for those few vital months in order to give the child a fairer start in life and compensate for the injustices of the world into which it was born.”

It is therefore a double injustice that in the UK today, babies born into poverty are less likely to be breastfed than their contemporaries born to professional, more highly educated mothers. Yet these are the very babies who are already disadvantaged from growing up in poverty, who are also more likely to be denied the benefits of breastfeeding, in terms of improved health and wellbeing for both the mother and child.

Sustain UK’s innovative report focussing on food poverty features practical measures that local authorities (LAs) can take to reduce it. Beyond the Food Bank: London Food Poverty Profile 2015, ranks London Boroughs on how far each one has implemented six different actions which tackle food poverty.

These six actions include self-evident poverty-tackling measures such as access to free school meals 365 days per year, promoting Healthy Start vouchers, and adopting the London Living Wage. But they also include implementation of the Unicef UK Baby Friendly Initiative across LA services, because being breastfed has such an impact on your health and wellbeing outcomes.

Evidence has demonstrated that a child from a low-income background who is breastfed is likely to have better health outcomes than a child from a more affluent background who is formula-fed, enabling them to leapfrog over some of the disadvantages that come with poverty.

However, the opposite is also true and in reality low-income women who leave school early are the least likely to breastfeed, thus compounding the effects of poverty and increasing inequality for their babies.

Putting universal Baby Friendly practices in place is an effective way of reaching mothers from disadvantaged backgrounds and increasing the likelihood of them breastfeeding for longer. The Sustain report illustrates the Boroughs which are doing this (8 out of 33), those that are on the Baby Friendly journey (19 out of 33) and those that are not.

  • Across England there is a thriving National Infant Feeding Network (NIFN), where infant feeding leads meet to share information and work together to find the best solutions to support mothers to feed and love their babies. Infant feeding leads working in the community are best placed to work with their local authorities to ensure local needs are met. Find out who your regional NIFN lead is.
  • Anyone in a local authority or in a commissioning role who would like to know more about how to implement the Unicef UK Baby Friendly standards, visit our website.
  • Download a copy of Beyond the Food Bank: London Food Poverty Profile 2015