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Current breastfeeding practices in the UK

The Department of Health and the World Health Organisation recommend exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life, with continued breastfeeding along with appropriate complementary foods up to two years of age or beyond1,2. Despite this recommendation being widely recognised and supported many modern mums either never start or give up breastfeeding before their baby is fully weaned.

 

Introduction

Breastfeeding rates in the UK have historically been amongst the lowest in the world3. When the first Infant Feeding Survey was conducted in England and Wales in 1975, it found that only 51% of women started to breastfeed their babies4. Since then, breastfeeding initiation rates have risen, particularly between 1990 and 2010 when the average UK initiation rate increased from 62% to 83%5,6.

Increases in breastfeeding have been seen across all countries within the UK, though there are some notable differences between them, with Northern Ireland seeing the lowest rates6.

The latest Infant Feeding Survey 2010 results have highlighted a particular need to focus on improving the duration of breastfeeding in the UK. Currently only 34% of mothers will continue to breastfeed their baby up to six months, and only one in a hundred will follow the current guidelines on exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life6.

A number of factors were identified in the 2010 survey that affect a mum’s likelihood to breastfeed7:

 

Birth order
  • Mums are more likely to breastfeed their first child (84%), than their subsequent babies (78%).

 

Socio-economic factors
  • Mums in managerial professions are more likely to breastfeed (90%) than those in routine & manual occupations (74%) or those who have never worked (71%).
  • Mums who completed full time education at 16 years or younger are less likely to breastfeed (63%) than those who completed full time education at age 18 or above (91%).
  • The most deprived mums breastfeed less (73%) than the least deprived mums (89%).

 

Demographic factors
  • Mums aged 30 or over are the most likely to breastfeed (87%) compared to younger mums aged 20 or younger (58%).

 

Ethnicity
  • Mums that are Asian (95%), black (96%) or Chinese (97%) are more likely to breastfeed than those who are white (79%).

 

Region
  • Breastfeeding rates vary by region within England (table 1)
Region Rate of breastfeeding
London 94%
South East 86%
South West 85%
East of England 85%
East Midlands 83%
West Midlands 78%
Yorkshire and the Humber 77%
North West 76%
North East 63%

Table 1: Breastfeeding rate by region

 

Mums’ reasons for stopping breastfeeding

Healthcare professionals can make a difference by identifying and helping mothers to overcome the reasons that they might stop breastfeeding (table 2).

Reasons given by mothers for stopping breastfedding within 1 week %
Baby would not suck / rejected breast 33
Painful breast / nipples 22
Insufficient milk 17
Baby too demanding / always hungry 11
Inconvenient / formula is more convenient 11
Found breastfeeding difficult / exhausting 9
Had little / no support 8
Domestic reasons (coping with other relatives / children) 6
(Too) stressful/causing distress 6
Breastfeeding took too long / was tiring 5

Table 2: Most common reported reasons for stopping breastfeeding7

  1. World Health Organization. 54th World Health Assembly. Global Strategy for Infant and Young Child Feeding: The Optimal Duration of Exclusive Breastfeeding. Geneva: Who, 2001.
  2. Department of Health. Infant Feeding Recommendations. 264898 1P 70K. London: DH, 2004.
  3. Editorial: Breastfeeding: Achieving the New Normal. The Lancet. 2016;387: 404 Available From: http://www.thelancet.com/pdfs/journals/lancet/piis0140-6736(16)00210-5.pdf (Accessed Nov 2016)
  4. Martin J. Infant Feeding 1975: Attitudes and Practice in England and Wales. London: HMSO, 1978.
  5. White A, Freeth S and O’Brien M. 1992 Infant Feeding 1990. HMSO, London.
  6. McAndrew F et al. Infant Feeding Survey 2010. Chapter 2: Incidence, Prevalence and Duration of Breastfeeding. Leeds: Health and Social Care Information Centre, 2012. Available At: http://www.hscic.gov.uk/catalogue/pub08694 [Accessed October 2013].
  7. McAndrew F et al. Infant Feeding Survey 2010. Chapter 4: Birth, Post-Natal Care and the Early Weeks. Leeds: Health and Social Care Information Centre, 2012. Available At: http://www.hscic.gov.uk/catalogue/pub08694 [Accessed October 2013]