Prof Fewtrell is Nutrition Lead at the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH). Follow the RCPCH on Twitter @RCPCHtweets.
UK breastfeeding rates are some of the lowest in the world with only 34 per cent of babies receiving breastmilk at six months of age. In Norway, by comparison, the figure stands at 71 per cent.
Benefits for both mother and baby
In early childhood, breastfeeding reduces the risk of intestinal, respiratory and ear infections, something that is particularly important for premature babies with underdeveloped immune systems. There are also benefits for children later on in life, with evidence suggesting breastfeeding may reduce the likelihood of becoming overweight and developing type 2 diabetes.
Mothers who breastfeed receive greater protection against breast cancer, a disease which one in eight women will develop at some stage in their lifetime. Some research has also shown that it can protect against ovarian cancer, the sixth most common cancer in British women.
Complex reasons for low rates
Breastfeeding doesn’t always come naturally – women may experience difficulty in getting their baby to breastfeed correctly, express concerns over whether their child is receiving enough milk, or experience pain when feeding. Advice can also be confusing, while some women are pressured into breastfeeding without the right level of support.
New mothers can also feel uncomfortable about breastfeeding in public, with facilities – particularly in the workplace – often not readily available.
More support is needed
We’re calling for more to be done to support women to continue breastfeeding beyond the first few weeks, and for a change in cultural attitudes, while ensuring that we don’t dictate to women that they must breastfeed or suggest that they are a failure if they don’t. We recognise that some women and babies cannot breastfeed.
Breastfeeding is a choice, but if a mother chooses to try, she must get the right support including consistent and practical advice and support from local healthcare professionals. We’re also calling for children to be taught about the importance of breastfeeding as part of the Personal, Social and Health Education curriculum at school to help normalise breastfeeding and promote it as a natural and positive thing.
Employers can help by ensuring that mothers who return to work are provided with feeding breaks and suitable spaces for breastfeeding or expressing.
A shift in the conversation
Women should be supported to breastfeed for as long as they choose and to feel comfortable breastfeeding in public. This requires a shift in the conversation across our society to remove barriers to breastfeeding and ensure that babies get the best possible start in life.
The RCPCH's guidance on breastfeeding is based on the latest research. Read the full details of its position in this statement.