Breastfeeding stats show promise but society ‘needs to change’

Kim Hookem-Smith
Yahoo Lifestyle
21 November 2012

Today’s breastfeeding stats are encouraging – the number of mums who initially give it a go has risen from 76 per cent in 2005 to 81 per cent in 2010. But by the time babies reach six months, only one per cent of new mums are breastfeeding exclusively – a figure unchanged in the same time frame.

The figure proves that health campaigns around the benefits of breast milk have got the message to mums that it is the absolute best diet for their babies. And the majority try to give this to them from the start.

But breastfeeding doesn’t come as easily or instinctively as some might think, and after just one week, the figure drops to 46 per cent. By six weeks, it’s at just 23 per cent.

This is despite government health guidelines recommending babies be exclusively breastfed for the first six months.

So while it seems mums have been encouraged to give breastfeeding a go, the support and advice to help them stick to it and deal with any problems that crop up along the way just isn’t there.

Unicef’s Baby Friendly campaign has been important in increasing the number of mums breastfeeding. “Its work has been mostly with hospital staff and midwives, advising and teaching them how to help and encourage mums to start breastfeeding. It’s clearly made a big difference,” Dr Rebecca Chicot, co-creator of the Essential Baby Care Guide DVDs tells us.

[Related: Breastfeeding may prevent obesity in later life]

“Mums have the will to do it but there’s a big drop off after the first week,” she explains.

“One of the reasons is how quickly women are sent home after birth. It takes 48 hours for your milk to come in and often mums leave hospital before that and find the transition really hard. It can be painful and sometimes quite scary because if the baby’s hungry and won’t settle, it’s hard not to get worried and reach for a bottle.”

She believes that modern mums have missed out on learning about breastfeeding as many of their mums and grandmothers opted for bottle feeding.

“The big challenge in our society is that we have had for several generations, a strong tradition of bottle feeding. Women don’t see their mums, aunties, cousins and friends breastfeeding, as they do in other, more traditional countries.

“It isn’t always instinctive, it’s a learned skill. So if we don’t see it, we only think about breastfeeding when we need to do it and we have no skill base and no experience.”

The ‘breast is best’ message has most certainly caught on, but now it seems we need to take the next step to help mums troubleshoot in the first few days and weeks when they are at home with their new babies.

There is plenty of help available, from how-to DVDs and detailed books with diagrams, to breastfeeding centres and volunteer mums who offer peer to peer help and coaching. But admitting you’re having trouble with something you feel should be so natural can be difficult and it’s clear by the drop off rates that mums aren’t getting the continued support they need.

[Related: One mum's breastfeeding tips]

“Once mums get past that first three month phase, it’s much easier,” continues Dr Chicot.  “Mums get onto an even footing and realise it’s so easy and convenient, and that gives them the confidence to keep going.

“But that first three month phase, where perhaps your baby isn’t settling as you’d expect or doesn’t sleep through the night, can be really tricky and we should be supporting all mums, however they’re feeding, through it.”

On the stats themselves, Dr Chicot is cautiously optimistic: “Anything that shows mums want to do it is very welcome. But we have a long way to go to make breastfeeding an integral part of modern society. We’re going in the right direction. And maybe in one or two generations, mums will have had mothers and grandmothers who breastfed for longer, who can offer advice.”

For breastfeeding support and information, try the NHS advice site or the La Leche league.

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