UNICEF reveal the true cost of failing to support women to breastfeed

copyright UNICEF UK/Jill Jennings

New research by UNICEF has revealed the staggering cost, to women, to babies and to the NHS, of not supporting women who want to breastfeed. I was asked if I would like to be among the first to share these findings and I felt it was vital I did.  Moderate increases in breastfeeding could reduce thousands of illnesses and in turn potentially save the NHS an estimated 40 million pounds a year, possibly in as little as one year.

Breastfeeding isn’t an easy topic, but I really want to tackle this, mainly because I read that the Infant Feeding Survey indicates 90% of women who stopped breastfeeding in the first six weeks discontinued before they wanted to. Many of those women could have continued to breastfeed with the right support, from health workers, from wider society. We have one of the lowest rates of breastfeeding in the world, the UK is still failing women who want to breastfeed.

copyright UNICEF UK/Jill Jennings

copyright UNICEF UK/Jill Jennings

UNICEF’s researchers, from universities across the UK, identified all the illnesses with links to breastfeeding, they then focused simply on the 5 illnesses where evidence of the positive effects of breastfeeding are strongest (breast cancer in the mother, and gastroenteritis, respiratory infections, middle ear infections and necrotising enterecolitis (NEC) in the baby).

The report then translated moderate increases in breastfeeding into health benefits for mother and baby, and into 40 million in savings for the NHS:

If half those mothers who currently do not breastfeed were to do so for up to 18 months over their life (e.g. 9 months per child for two children), there would be:

- 865 fewer cases of breast cancer
- With cost savings to the NHS of over £21 million
- Improved quality of life equating to more than £10 million
(Over the lifetime of each annual cohort of first-time mothers).

If 45% of babies were exclusively breastfed for four months, and if 75%
of babies in neonatal units were breastfed at discharge, each year there
would be:
- 3,285 fewer babies hospitalised with gastroenteritis and 10,637 fewer GP consultations, saving more than £3.6million
- 5,916 fewer babies hospitalised with respiratory illness, and 22,248 fewer GP consultations, saving around £6.7million
- 21,045 fewer GP visits for ear infection, saving £750,000
- 361 fewer cases of the potentially fatal disease necrotising enterocolitis, saving more than £6million
A small increase in breastfeeding could also increase the UK’s IQ, reduce obesity by 5%, and reduce at least 3 incidents of SIDS annually.

The report is the tip of the iceberg, there are many more chronic conditions, responsible for significant amounts of NHS budgets, such as heart disease, cancers, diabetes, asthma, where breastfeeding is linked to reduced incidence. More research is needed to comment on how significant an impact breastfeeding could have in these areas.

I read this and I can’t help thinking I got very lucky. I might have spent 90 hours in labour, I might have had 2 emergency C sections, but I was incredibly lucky with support when it came to breastfeeding. I had amazing hospital staff and daily midwife visits for the first week, they taught a very tired, emotional and shell shocked me how to feed my baby.

Mr A, me and a baby Miss L

It helped I’d had breastfeeding passed down to me by my mum, that I was surrounded by completely supportive friends and family. I also live in one of the highest concentrations of under fives in the UK, breastfeeding is a very normal sight.

Talking to new mums now, I realise what I thought was ‘normal’ just isn’t, daily midwife visits don’t exist in some areas, women are still made to feel really uncomfortable about breastfeeding, the media still undermines breastfeeding, and the right advice, which could fix so many problems, isn’t readily available.

So today is just the beginning.  UNICEF are now calling for government and policy makers to recognise breastfeeding as a major public health issue.  UNICEF want to ensure sufficient levels of well qualified staff in the NHS and consistent good quality support services.

UNICEF want legislation to tighten the law and prevent formula companies undermining breastfeeding, urgent research into how breastfeeding helps protect against some of the big killers like heart disease and diabetes, and campaigns to raise awareness of the health benefits.

I want what they want, for women, for babies, for their families, and for the country as a whole. If you do too, please take a moment to share this post on social media and beyond, in any way you can. Please share your stories and experiences in the comments.

Preventing Disease and Saving Resources: potential contribution of increasing breastfeeding rates in the UK, was carried out by a multi-university academic team including Dundee University, Oxford University, University of York, Brunel University, and St George’s, University of London, as well as the National Childbirth Trust.

15 thoughts on “UNICEF reveal the true cost of failing to support women to breastfeed

  1. Blimey, I had no idea.
    I was lucky that I had good help with breastfeeding and no specific expectations, so I ended up ‘extended breastfeeding’ without planning too.
    I wouldn’t want Mums feeling that they ‘had to’ breastfeed, as I can totally see that it might not suit some Mums.
    But I’d love to see more information about it for Mums and more support to help them when they want to.
    Mummy Whisperer recently posted…Should Mums put themselves first a Lot, a Little, or somewhere in between?My Profile

  2. Have a long post on the way about this but persevering with breastfeeding (and it’s often a case of dogged perseverance) really can be determined by the support you get in the early days and although our hospital didn’t support formula feeding they didn’t really help with breastfeeding either. Not checking for and treating tongue-tie in a timely way doesn’t help either. We had to go to a lactation consultant to get the help we needed but it was totally worth it. Wish that this sort of help was available to everyone.
    Gail recently posted…Look who’s hereMy Profile

      • Hi. I nearly didn’t breastfeed my first child even though I really wanted to. The hospital staff were unhelpful until my husband arrived with bottle feeding equipment and explained why. They made me feel inadequate until spoken to by a man. Go figure! I loved it and took my child into work to show her off. A colleague asked me if I was breastfeeding her and I told her that I was, at that moment! It can be done quite discreetly! I’m cross with the hospital because I nearly missed out on a lovely experience, lovely quiet time and not having to do all the bottle prep and steralising stuff.

  3. I am breastfeeding my 2nd baby exclusively but it has not been easy to get to this point. Dogged persistence on my part has been key.
    I think it is pretty bad that a midwife told me to give formula after my baby had not regained her birth weight at 2 weeks. A few days later
    a health visitor came to see me and gave me a list of breastfeeding groups in my area but it was out of date and many of the numbers did not work.
    Giving formula made me feel a failure. Luckily I kept going with breastfeeding and very slowly my baby regained her birthweight but not until baby was 5 weeks old.
    More support needs to be given to help mums succeed at breastfeeding.

  4. This is such a huge issue, and one that is really not given enough attention. The idea of breastfeeding as a choice is foisted on us continuously, but my experience has not supported that at all. Almost everyone I know who started out breastfeeding and switched to formula early on, didn’t want to, but didn’t know how to do anything else because they couldn’t find the support they needed to solve the breastfeeding problems they had encountered. I love to know the figures on the cost to Ireland too, because as far as I know, our breastfeeding rates are even lower than those of the UK.
    Lisa recently posted…You do the maths!My Profile

  5. Quite simply, the only reason I persevered with breastfeeding was because I believed it was important and was single-minded about it. If it had been left to the midwives or my mother I would have given up. The delivery suite at the hospital where I ave birth was overflowing in the maternity ward. There were quite simply not enough midwives. The only way my Baby got her second feed was my a midwife unceremoniously grabbing my boob and expressing milk into my baby’s mouth. Then she disappeared.

    The nursery nurse gave me one appointment, but it was not enough. I was struggling. The day after I was discharged from hospital, we were readmitted (to another hospital) as my baby had severe jaundice. Without any help I managed to get her to feed every 2/3 hours and we were discharged again. By now my nipples were sore. They remained severely cracked for three months – despite numerous midwife visits, which blamed my ‘latch’.Finally, when because I pressed my Dr, she said thrush might be the cause, took a swab and discovered I had some unusual infection. Antibiotics cleared it up. No more cracks.

    During this period of time, I also had to deal with tongue tie and my baby’s milk intolerance, which only was picked up by a private consultant, to whom we went to try and get the tongue tie dealt with. The local doctors and midwives were all clueless and not terribly sympathetic. I, meanwhile, was miserable and desperate. One midwife told me that it was nice for me to keep being visited but she had other people to see too.

    If I had another baby I would still breastfeed, but I am not anxious to go down this route again, as it was such hell the first time. I am not surprised at all that other mothers give up breastfeeding so quickly. But for me, there was no other way, it was breastfeeding or bust, and I very nearly did.

    There are not enough midwives and not enough training about possible complications. My midwives were so obsessed with gaining the right latch, that they missed the real problems that I was facing.

    • I can’t believe all that you went through. I recognise that sense of determination, I had it too and I wonder had I not been so determined or if I had encountered all these issues would I have continued? I am full of admiration.
      So often, as you have illustrated, there is an easy solution to the problem, but instead women go through emotional and physical pain waiting for support.
      Second time round things were very different for me, and I really hope they are for you too.
      The Alexander Residence recently posted…Have no fear the shreddies are hereMy Profile

  6. I love this article, well written and informative. Unfortunately breastfeeding in the UK (from my experience) is all about being assertive yourself. A new Mum who doesn’t really know what they want has no hope if they are not in the right area for a good support network. It was ME who diagnosed my son’s tongue tie at 3am when he was screaming with starvation after being discharged having NEVER latched on, it was ME who sought help to get it snipped, it was ME who also dealt with a toddler and it was ME who carried on fighting until we were feeding with no problem. Help didn’t come to me. I had to go to it. This is wrong and needs to be reversed. Currently feeding 3rd baby after also having her tongue tie snipped (privately and costly, I might add!).

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