Swansea academic asks governments to help increase breastfeeding rates

On the eve of World Breastfeeding Week, a Swansea academic is calling on governments across the globe to take ownership for increasing breastfeeding rates rather than laying responsibility on new mothers.

Dr Amy BrownDr Amy Brown, Associate Professor of Child Public Health has published a new review paper  highlighting the critical need for the government to invest in creating a society that is supportive of breastfeeding, rather than laying all responsibility on the individual mother to breastfeed.

Dr Brown said: ‘We want to support more women to breastfeed their babies and for longer. However, in the UK we currently have the lowest breastfeeding rates in the world. Improving this is important for our health and economy but also because many women want to breastfeed for longer and can feel regret and guilt if they stop before they are ready. This needs to change, but it is not the responsibility of individual women to make this happen.”

In her paper entitled ‘Breastfeeding as a public health responsibility’, published in the Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics, Dr Brown identifies five key areas where governments must invest in supporting breastfeeding. These include:-

  • Invest in better health services for mothers and babies
  • Improve public knowledge and acceptance of breastfeeding
  • Support maternal legal rights around maternity leave, breastfeeding in public and breastfeeding on return to work
  • Protect maternal mental health
  • Reduce the reach of the breast milk substitute industry

Dr Brown said: ‘It can seem like breastfeeding should be straightforward, but, many women experience challenges which are often exacerbated by factors outside their control. For example, vital support services are being cut and health professionals are stretched meaning women are not getting the practical and emotional support they need. On top of this, many women need to return to work before they are ready because statutory maternity pay is low and although organisations should support them to continue breastfeeding, many do not have the knowledge or facilities to do so.

“These factors are not the responsibility of the individual mother. Instead, if we want more women to be able to breastfeed, the government needs to invest properly in the support and structures they need to do so. For those who do overcome these issues, many women then face further criticism. Women are protected under law to breastfeed their babies but many are unaware of this and we frequently hear stories of women being asked to stop breastfeeding in public.

“Health promotion messages encourage women to breastfeed but many around them do not understand why or think it’s a waste of time. Meanwhile, despite it being illegal to advertise infant formula milks, many companies use loopholes to publicise misleading messages.

Dr Brown has said that education around breastfeeding should not just target mothers but reach the wider population. She said: “Children should be educated in schools and investment should be made into adverts highlighting how breastfeeding protects mums and babies. More widely we should be supporting new mothers to care for their babies, not criticizing them.”

Other countries have implemented these elements and as a consequence their breastfeeding rates have become almost universal. In Norway for example, the breastfeeding rates were very low 40 years ago but their government decided to support breastfeeding women and invest in families more generally in some key areas:-

  • Both mothers and fathers have extended, well paid leave after the birth
  • Support services are more widespread.
  • Adverts for infant formula milks are well regulated.
  • Laws that protect women to breastfeed in public are upheld
  • Public attitudes towards breastfeeding women are far more supportive than in the UK.

These factors mean that women who want to breastfeed have a far better experience, and have a far higher chance of being able to do so successfully.

Dr Brown has said that increasing breastfeeding rates in the UK is a strategic and urgent priority but this does not mean society should expect individual women to be responsible for making this change. Just like in other areas of public health, the government must create the right system to give mothers the best possible chance.

She said: “We are happy to invest in other health promotion interventions that promote positive health such as vaccination programmes, laws around smoking in public places and banning lead in paint, so why not extend this to supporting how babies are fed? If we want to give women the best possible chance of breastfeeding, we must hold governments – not them – responsible for creating an environment that supports, protects and enables them to do so.

Breastfeeding Uncovered: Who really decides how we feed our babies? by Dr Amy Brown is published by Pinter and Martin.

For more information visit Breastfeeding Uncovered