The UK has the lowest breastfeeding rates in the world New book highlights the lack of provision for breastfeeding mothers in the UK

A Swansea University academic has said that breastfeeding levels in the UK are the lowest in the world. She is placing much of the blame on the social pressures and attitudes that many women face and is calling for greater support for new mothers to start and continue breastfeeding.

Dr Amy Brown of the Department of Public Health, Policy and Social Sciences discusses this in her forthcoming book, Breastfeeding Uncovered. She says that breastfeeding has a whole host of benefits, including protecting the health of mothers and babies. Increasing breastfeeding rates would therefore save the UK millions of pounds each year.

Dr Brown discussed this research at the British Science Festival at Swansea University today (Friday 9th September).

Newborn babyDr Brown said: “It 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.”

In her book, Dr Brown examines why breastfeeding is so unachievable as, biologically speaking, most women should be able to breastfeed. She has found that many mothers face challenging experiences that make breastfeeding seem impossible. This is influenced predominantly by the attitudes society has towards breastfeeding, and the environment this creates.

Dr Brown 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. For example, Google returns over 18 million hits for ‘should a mother should breastfeed in public’, another 14 million for ‘is breastfeeding hard’, whilst ‘breastfeeding is wrong’ returns over 7 million.

Dr Amy Brown“To put this in context there are twice the number of hits returned for breastfeeding as there are the Syrian refugee crisis and there are more Google searches for news items relating to breastfeeding than the recent Italian earthquake. Meanwhile, a celebrity recently posted a ‘selfie’ breastfeeding her baby which up until last week returned 363,000 hits and 6000 of those considered to be ‘news’.”

Dr Brown (pictured left) 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 will be published by Pinter and Martin in October.