Clare Byam-Cook: How can we improve Britain’s breastfeeding rates?

As we celebrate National Breastfeeding Week, Clare Byam-Cook addresses the issue of plummeting breastfeeding rates

The reason I ask this question is because, despite endless campaigns to promote breastfeeding, Britain still has one of the lowest breastfeeding rates in the Western world. Statistics show that about 30% of women won’t even attempt to breastfeed their babies and of the 70% who do try, roughly half give up within the first six weeks. Numerous surveys show that these mothers are giving up because they find it too painful or difficult, rather than because they are unaware of the health benefits.

So what can we do? First of all, I think we should be more realistic when teaching breastfeeding in antenatal classes so there is less emphasis placed on discussing the benefits of breastfeeding and more on teaching mothers how to do it and what to do if things go wrong. There seems to be a fear that if we discuss all the potential breastfeeding problems that might arise, the mothers will be put off from even trying.

Unfortunately, this policy means most mothers assume that because breastfeeding is natural, it will also be easy. It then comes as a shock if they find it difficult and worse still, they have no idea how to overcome common problems such as sore nipples or difficulty in latching. These mothers would feel more confident if they knew what to expect and how to deal with it.

I also think it’s important to give mothers more information on all the breastfeeding aids that have been designed to enhance the whole experience. Many breastfeeding counsellors won’t discuss breast pumps or nipple shields, even when members of the class they are teaching have asked them to do so. This is such a shame, as these aids can make all the difference between a mother continuing to breastfeed and giving up completely.

And finally, we should abandon the ‘all or nothing’ approach which leads mothers and many health professionals to believe that it’s either breastfeeding exclusively or not at all. Surely it’s better, for those mothers who are struggling, to try combination feeding, rather than feeling that if they give even one bottle of formula to their baby they have failed and need to give up breastfeeding completely.

Tips for new mums…

• Do your research before baby is born. Read books which reflect the way you would like to breastfeed your baby and keep an open mind about things like feeding on demand versus a strict routine. You may well change your views once your little one is born!

• Ask other mothers to recommend any bits of  equipment that they found helpful, such as breast pumps and nipple shields.

• Get recommendations for good breastfeeding counsellors and drop-in clinics in your local area from friends and family.

• Try not to give up too soon. For most mothers,  breastfeeding problems are only temporary and if you can work your way through them you will have many happy months of breastfeeding ahead of you.

• If the experts, such as your midwife, can’t show you how to breastfeed successfully, please don’t feel a failure if you give up. The most important thing is that your baby is well fed and that you are both happy.