Why are breastfeeding rates so low in the UK?

As this past week has been World Breastfeeding Week I thought I should write a post on breastfeeding. I have already shared my own breastfeeding journey so wanted to look at why breastfeeding rates are so low in the UK.

The UK has some of the worst breastfeeding rates in the world. Why is this? After watching the Channel 4 Dispatches documentary on breastfeeding I felt angry that women that want to breastfeed aren’t always given the support that they need. Surely the government should be investing in breastfeeding, after all it is meant to have so many health benefits for children, and even mothers, it seems that with more women breastfeeding there could be less of a demand on the NHS for early childhood illnesses.  It could be down to luck, but also down to breastfeeding in that James hasn’t once needed to see a doctor for illness.

I breastfed James until he was 19 months old, and I actually see this as one of my greatest achievements. I would’ve liked to have got to two years as recommended by the World Health Organisation but it was becoming more and more difficult to feed him when he was moving around so much and becoming easily distracted, which I took as an indication that it was the right time to stop. When I first started breastfeeding James I had no idea how long I would do it for, but I knew I wanted to do it for as long as possible. I used to set targets for myself beginning with 6 months. After 6 months I still felt happy to continue and wasn’t having any problems so carried on until 12 months. I then wanted to continue to 18 months and after that I started to think about stopping.  I do think some people probably think I am weird for breastfeeding for this long, but for me I wanted to give James the best possible start in life.   I am lucky that I am a stay at home mum so I didn’t need to worry about returning to work and how I would breastfeed around it. I think if I was returning to work I would’ve given up because the thought of having to express milk at work seems a lot of hassle.  I wonder if this is one reason why so few babies are still being breastfed at 6 months?  Compared to some other countries the UK’s maternity leave policy doesn’t really support long-term breastfeeding.  According to Business Insider UK, in Sweden both parents are allowed to stay off work until the child is 18 months old.

According to UNICEF UK 8 out of 10 women stop breastfeeding before they want to.  When you hear so much about the UK having such low breastfeeding rates, I was surprised that initial uptake of breastfeeding is around the 80% mark, which means there are a lot of women that do actually want to breastfeed their babies.  However, according to the Infant Feeding Survey conducted in 2010 by 6 weeks only 23% of babies were being exclusively breastfed and at 6 months only 1%. In the UK it is recommended that babies are breastfed for 6 months, however the World Health Organisation recommends breastfeeding for 2 years.

So why is initial breastfeeding uptake fairly high, but then drops so drastically?  I know that when I had James while I was in hospital I had a lot of support, you feel more secure about breastfeeding because you can be guided as to how to do it.  Then you leave the hospital and it is down to you.  This is daunting. We went and bought formula on our way home from hospital, just in case I wasn’t able to do it at home. Breastfeeding is hard and can be painful at times.  It takes time to find positions that work, to get a good latch and to have the confidence to breastfeed in public.  I think women need support when they leave hospital.  I remember times when I was worried James wasn’t feeding enough, or he seemed to be feeding constantly, or he would even refuse feeds.  For a new mum, these are hard things to deal with, on top of everything else you have going on.  I can totally understand why mums would then decide to go down the formula route.  Especially when you are frequently told how formula will make life easier, or how it will make them sleep at night.  Formula feeding is certainly right for some mums and I’m sure it can make a world of difference to them, but for those mums that want to carry on breastfeeding, it really makes me sad that so many don’t get the support that they need to do this.

Breastfeeding support seems to vary depending on where you live.  However, there are things we can all do to support breastfeeding women…

  • Don’t stare at them or make them feel uncomfortable.
  • Offer them a drink and something to eat.  Breastfeeding makes you really thirsty and hungry.
  • Don’t tell them formula feeding will help their baby sleep – this is a myth.
  • Don’t ask them when they are going to stop breastfeeding.  That’s a personal decision for them, and they probably don’t know the answer anyway.
  • If they are struggling help them to find a support group.
  • Tell them they are doing a great job.  Words of encouragement really help.



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