The number of women in England who breastfeed their babies six to eight weeks after giving birth has declined according to new figures from Public Health England (PHE).
Just 42.7 per cent of mothers breastfeed their babies when they are six weeks old, according to the most recent data for 2017-2018 – a rate that has dropped from 43.1 per cent in 2015-2016 and 43.8 per cent in 2014-2015.
And although the figures are decreasing overall, the rate of initial uptake remains high – at around 80 per cent – so what is stopping them continuing?
The picture isn’t the same across the UK – with 80 per cent of babies being breastfed in Tower Hamlets, east London, compared with fewer than one in five babies in Knowsley, Merseyside.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends that mothers exclusively breastfeed their baby for the first six months of life, after which point they can start eating solids, being supplemented by breastfeeding.
It places no upper age limit on breastfeeding but encourages mothers to do so until around two years old.
This is because research has found mothers as well as babies benefit from breastfeeding. Breast milk protects babies from infection and provides a balance of vitamins and nutrients. Babies who are breastfed also have a lower chance of cot death, childhood leukaemia and developing allergies. They are also less likely to develop diabetes or become overweight when they are older.
But it isn’t always easy for mothers – some have problems with breastfeeding, have little support, or have to return to work and are unable to be around their child during the day to sustain breastfeeding alone.
A survey from 2017 also found mothers still have reservations about feeding in public. The mothers polled were most likely to say that they would feel embarrassed breastfeeding in the presence of people they don’t know (63 per cent) and 59 per cent feel the same about partner’s family.
This might go some way to explain why the breastfeeding figures continue to drop off, in the face of consistent messaging from the NHS, midwives, and medical experts, to encourage it.
Prof Viv Bennett, chief nurse at Public Health England, acknowledged that breastfeeding was not always easy but still encouraged mothers to make this choice. “We know some mothers may need support and encouragement to help them start and continue with breastfeeding,” she said.
PHE offers new mothers support through the NHS Start4Life campaign, and consistent messaging from midwives and the health service
The Royal College of Midwives (RCM) updated advice to tell midwives that women who decide not to breastfeed must be respected for their choice.
Carmel Lloyd, the head of education at the RCM, called for more investment in specialist midwives and high-quality postnatal support to help women start and keep breastfeeding.