New book examines breastfeeding in the UK

In a new book released today (Thursday 13th October) a Swansea University academic says that breastfeeding levels in the UK are amongst the lowest in the world due to complex social pressures and attitudes and calls for greater support for new mothers to start and continue breastfeeding.

‌In Breastfeeding Uncovered,  Dr Amy Brown of the Department of Public Health, Policy and Social Sciences says that breastfeeding has a whole host of benefits, including protecting the health of mothers and babies and increasing breastfeeding rates would save the UK millions of pounds each year.

In her book Dr Brown argues that across the world mothers are urged to breastfeed, but in Western society many find this a difficult task. Those who stop can feel demoralised and unsure as to why such a desired, encouraged and biologically normal behaviour can appear so challenging in reality.

Dr Brown looks at why this continues to happen and reveals how complex social and cultural messages work against new mothers and damages the normal physiology of breastfeeding and makes it seem unmanageable. She removes the focus from the mother and instead urges society to rethink its attitude towards breastfeeding and mothering and instead to support, encourage and protect mothers to feed their babies.

Dr Brown said: “Breastfeeding is free. It is encouraged. It is convenient. Yet, despite over 90% of mothers in the UK wanting to breastfeed, more than half of babies have had some formula by the end of the first week and overall, the UK has the lowest breastfeeding rates in the world. Importantly, more than 80% of mothers who stop breastfeeding in the first six weeks are not happy to do so, with some even going on to develop postnatal depression because of this.”

Newborn babyShe said: “Breastfeeding should be a normal behaviour. However, instead it sparks high levels of debate in the press and online, much of which can be highly critical of breastfeeding and women who do so.

‌Dr Brown has studied how these external factors affect breastfeeding. She has found that women can feel uncomfortable feeding in public, or start to question whether they are doing something wrong. These public debates can also influence family and friends, who challenge her choice to breastfeed. When new mothers need support they instead find criticism or hear others talk about how difficult it is.

Dr Brown said: “Also there are always self-styled experts on hand, willing to promote their products and books that can damage breastfeeding. This is before formula companies use clever tactics to slip through advertising regulations. And alongside all of this, new mothers face significant social pressure to ‘get their lives back’ quickly after having a baby, by socialising, getting back in their jeans and keeping their partner happy which can make breastfeeding seem so overwhelming.”

“The UK is not breastfeeding friendly. Even though we might promote ‘breast is best’ we do not follow it up with actions to support new mothers to do so. More people here believe that smacking children is ok than believe breastfeeding in public is ok. Until we challenge attitudes like this, pay better care of our new mothers and truly support them to breastfeed, we will not see rates rise.”

Breastfeeding Uncovered: Who really decides how we feed our babies? by Dr Amy Brown is published by Pinter and Martin.

ssociate Professor at Swansea University’s College of Human and Health Sciences at Swansea University and is the programme director for the MSc Child Public Health . Her research areas include infant nutrition, breastfeeding, weaning, obesity, pregnancy, postnatal depression and parenting. She has presented her research at the House of Commons to a cross-party group of Westminster MPs and peers looking at the issue of breastfeeding in the UK.