This week is World Breastfeeding Week, led by the World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action (WABA). Celebrated every year, World Breastfeeding Week encourages breastfeeding supporters to come together to shine a spotlight on the benefits of breastfeeding and encourage even more support in the wider global community. This year is its 25th year!
In light of World Breastfeeding Week, I have been finding out more about the benefits of breastfeeding, those that we hear a lot about, and those that aren’t talked about quite as much. I’ve also been trying to find out why breastfeeding can be such a controversial subject, and what this means for mums who just want to give their baby the best start possible.
Breast is best….
By now we’re all used to hearing “breast is best”. The slogan became widely used after advice from the World Health Organisation (WHO) and Unicef that babies who are exclusively breastfed for the first 6 months of life get the best start for growth, development, and health1. But what does that mean? The NHS Start 4 Life website offers a simple summary of the benefits of breastfeeding for mum and baby:
- Breast milk is the best food for a baby as it’s tailor made and contains all the necessary nutrients
- Breast milk boosts a baby’s ability to fight illness and infection in the first 6 months
- Breastfeeding lowers mum’s risk of certain cancers, and burns about 500 calories a day
- Breastfeeding is a great way to strengthen the bond between mum and baby
- Babies who are not breastfed are at greater risk of becoming obese
But what other benefits does breastfeeding offer?
As well as making us more aware of the benefits for individual families, World Breastfeeding Week aims to highlight the global impact of breastfeeding. WABA think that breastfeeding and support for breastfeeding are a key part of achieving worldwide goals for sustainable development2. For instance, as a safe, secure and low cost source of food, breastmilk promotes good nutrition, food security and may help to reduce poverty. The health benefits for babies improve their development, wellbeing and survival. And as a natural, renewable food which doesn’t need industrial production, packaging or delivery breastmilk is kinder to the environment than formula milk.
Supporting women and babies…
Breastfeeding clearly has many, many benefits, but it can also be a controversial topic. Conversations around breastfeeding often lead to debate, and we regularly see stories, both positive and negative, in local and national news. The idea that breast is best for baby is one most of us agree with but the reality can feel much less straightforward to mums. Many mums set out to breastfeed their baby (around 73% start breastfeeding in England3) but very few breastfeed, exclusively or otherwise, for 6 months. In fact, many say that they stopped before they’d planned to4. And there are many reasons mums find it hard to breastfeed. Some report physical difficulties, others want to share feeding responsibilities with a co-parent, and some feel uncomfortable or unsupported by family and the wider community.
While most of us support the idea of mums breastfeeding, reactions to seeing it happen in public places can be mixed (despite the law protecting breastfeeding mums). It’s clear that our culture around infant feeding has changed a lot since the introduction of formula milk, and breastfeeding is no longer something we’re used to seeing when we’re out and about. Some people think changing this culture – moving away from images of bottle fed babies to breastfed ones in mainstream media, making it more ordinary to see mums breastfeeding babies in public spaces, and making mums feel supported and comfortable in doing so – will have a big impact on mums’ decisions around feeding their babies5. But we all have a role to play, and WABA suggest ways men, women, and children can be involved in helping to make this change.
However mums decide to feed their babies, the Unicef guidance is clear that all mums should be supported in their choice, to ensure that babies are fed safely and that strong bonds are nurtured between mum and baby. Useful resources and advice for breastfeeding and formula feeding mums can be found via Unicef Baby Friendly and NHS Choices.
If you’re living in Bradford, find out how you can access support for breastfeeding here.
And for families living in Bowling and Barkerend, Bradford Moor, and Little Horton, our partners Better Start Bradford have a range of projects available to support you with feeding your baby. A brand new home based breastfeeding support service is currently being developed and should be up and running early next year. Please visit their website for more information.
- NHS England Statistical Release Breastfeeding Initiation, April 2017 https://www.england.nhs.uk/statistics/statistical-work-areas/maternity-and-breastfeeding/
- McAndrew et al., (2012) Infant Feeding Survey 2010
- Brown (2017) Breastfeeding as a public health responsibility: a review of the evidence. Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics