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Proportion of babies breastfed at six to eight weeks lowest in England for four years

Rates in England continue to lag behind those of comparable European countries

Caroline White

Friday, 26 October 2018

The proportion of babies who are still being breastfed six to eight weeks after birth in England has fallen to its lowest level in the past four years, the latest annual preliminary figures* published by Public Health England reveal.

The data covers the period 1 April 2017 to 31 March 2018, and were submitted by local authorities on a voluntary basis through an interim reporting system set up to collect health visiting activity data at a local authority resident level.

Some 140 out of 150 local authorities provided sufficient data, and their returns show an aggregate prevalence of 42.7% for 2017-18. This compares with 44.1% in 2016-17; 43.1% in 2015-16; and 43.8% in 2014-15.

Royal College of Midwives (RCM) head of education, Carmel Lloyd, said: “These latest annual statistics suggest England could be doing better when it comes to breastfeeding. Evidence clearly shows that breastfeeding in line with WHO guidance brings optimum benefits for the health of both mother and baby.

“Typically, the number of women who start breastfeeding in the UK is around 80%, but unfortunately after a couple of weeks this number falls dramatically.”

She added that low breastfeeding rates in parts of the UK unfortunately indicate a much bigger social and cultural problem.

“There are some areas where many generations of women haven't been given the example of breastfeeding or offered the right support to enable them to initiate and sustain breastfeeding if they chose to breastfeed,” she said.

“For women who choose to breastfeed it is so important that they feel supported not only by midwives, but by their family, friends and wider society too, particularly when it comes to breastfeeding in public.

“What the RCM wants to see is an investment in specialist midwives and high quality postnatal support to help women to initiate and sustain breastfeeding if that is the way they have chosen to feed their baby,” she said.

Dr Max Davie, Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health officer for health promotion said: “Breast milk gives babies the best possible start in life. These figures are therefore disappointing, but sadly not surprising.”

He said the significant drop-off at the six to eight-week mark was due to a range of factors, which included lack of local support services, social stigma around breastfeeding in public as well as “inconsistent messaging from health professionals.”

He added: “With our breastfeeding rates continuing to lag behind Western European counterparts, it is clear that action is needed from government through investment in vital local support services for new mums and better information for all about the benefits of breastfeeding.”

*Breastfeeding at 6 to 8 weeks after birth: annual data. Public Health England, 26 October 2018.

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