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Getting breastfeeding support right for women and their families - Shereen Fisher

With the World Cup upon us I always feel more linked in on an international level. It got me thinking about which countries are getting breastfeeding support right for women and their families, why in the UK have we got so stuck and what we can do to learn from our international partners to help families at home. That’s not to say that we can simply replicate solutions and fixes with no regard to context, but given that the majority of women across the planet are physically able to breastfeed, perhaps there is something we can share with each other about this very universal quality we possess?

Here in the UK the picture of breastfeeding is not good. Despite international consensus that breastfeeding is healthiest for babies and mothers, we still have some of the lowest rates of breastfeeding with many mothers stopping in the first few days and weeks. Most new parents are aware of the benefits and attempt to breastfeed (80% start to breastfeed) but less than 1% continue to breastfeed their babies for a year. From a national health perspective this is very worrying as accepting low levels of breastfeeding poses a risk to the nation’s health - more obesity, breast and ovarian cancers, and a number of chronic (and expensive) health conditions - all of which could be dramatically reduced if we were to support breastfeeding better than we do currently.

Heather Trickey noted in a recent article that “The UK’s situation is understandable, but it is not inevitable.” She explains that Norway, like the UK, had similarly low breastfeeding rates in the 1970s, but today nearly all Norwegian parents start to breastfeed and four out of every five mothers continue to breastfeed for at least six months. The change has been massively helped by tackling the issue of low breastfeeding on a number of fronts including professional training, education and support alongside generous maternity leave, child support and fostering a positive societal attitude. So change is definitely possible.

But breastfeeding is about personal choice isn’t it? It’s up to women what they want to do with their bodies. Of course, it is and although breastfeeding is about personal choice, there are also many different factors that influence and enable choice to happen. Individual choice is linked to larger issues such as inadequate early days support in getting breastfeeding established, pressure to return to work and inconsistent health care professional knowledge. Even when a women wants to breastfeed and receives hospital support she may still experience resistance from her partner, family or friends or from her local community. Anyone - individual or organisation - who persists in seeing choice as just ‘personal’ is colluding in an untruth that pressurises women into being solely responsible in making breastfeeding work.

Research shows that countries that have had more success have attended to policy and cultural issues equally. It’s the community attitudes towards breastfeeding that affect womens’ comfort, confidence and familiarity with breastfeeding and can ultimately decide it – we all have a responsibility to uphold this. Breastfeeding in the north of England where some areas have 1 in 5 mothers sustain breastfeeding to 6-8 weeks must be considerably more difficult than some London Boroughs with more than 4 in 5 reaching the same time.

The media also has an important, responsible role to play in raising the profile of breastfeeding by presenting it more in a normal way, showing women of all different ages and backgrounds, being open about problems and how they can be overcome. This would be especially valuable where people lack breastfeeding education from other sources. By creating a culture of acceptance and awareness, based on evidence-based data, we can make it more comfortable and easier for women to make a choice and for professionals to support them, and to encourage and assist managers and commissioners to invest in breastfeeding services for their communities.

The NHS could do more to support its own employees to returning to work to enable them to continue breastfeeding.

As a breastfeeding support organisation with over 20 years’ experience we are well-informed about the reality of breastfeeding from the parents and families we support. We help women who are trying to overcome problems and set-backs, and all too often when they are at their lowest and loneliest to find ways of breastfeeding that work for them. We have a good record - women who get support from BfN tend to come back for further support, breastfeed for longer, recommend the charity to others – some even go on to inspire, support and train others in their local communities.

I was reminded of this circle of reciprocity at a recent study day of BfN Supporters where a mother shared that it was her peer supporter who got her through the ‘pyjama days’ after her twins came along – the help she received inspired her to train with the charity and help other families.

Whatever one makes of breastfeeding and the state of it in the UK, it is unarguable that breastfeeding matters to women and families. More than 3 in 5 women stop breastfeeding earlier than they want to and often the emotions and grief around not being able to breastfeed can cast a long shadow of disappointment. We know that the vast majority of reasons women give for stopping breastfeeding are issues that can easily be resolved with good quality support.  Support should be honest, unique and personalised. It needs to be well-funded and it should not operate in a vacuum. It should be evidence-based and integrated with a whole system approach that cares for a women in the pre and postnatal period. Where women choose not to breastfeed that should be supported as well so the health and wellbeing of all babies can be upheld.

The provision of support for new mothers and their families is grossly inadequate and varies widely across the UK.  Women are very aware of the benefits of breastfeeding through health promotion but receive very little support in making breastfeeding work for them. This leaves women feeling that they have failed, but actually they have been failed by the lack of support available to them. This needs to change.

While breastfeeding celebration week is a time of sharing positive stories and there are many we must not gloss over the fact that so much more can and needs to be done at all levels of society, in and outside of health care systems and in communities to build an environment that enables women to choose and sustain breastfeeding.

Shereen Fisher is Chief Executive Officer, The Breastfeeding Network

Useful resources and references

The National Breastfeeding Helpline (0300 100 0212), offers independent, confidential, mother-centred, non-judgmental breastfeeding support and information from volunteers with experience who trained by The Breastfeeding Network and the Association of Breastfeeding Mothers. Lines are open 9.30am – 9.30pm every single day of the year. Calls to the Helpline cost no more than calls to UK numbers starting 01 or 02 and are part of any inclusive minutes that apply to your mobile provider or call package.

Trickey, H. Infant Feeding and a changing public health policy direction, April 22nd 2018 -

National Infant Feeding Survey (

Hoddinott, P, et al (2006), One-to-One or Group-Based Peer Support for Breastfeeding? Women's Perceptions of a Breastfeeding Peer Coaching Intervention, Birth, 33: 139–146.

PHE Statistical release: breastfeeding at 6-8 weeks after birth: 2017 to 2018 quarterly data.

Unicef Ten Steps to Successful Breastfeeding:

Breastfeeding Network: Breastfeeding-Friendly Scheme:

Evaluation of Breastfeeding Network peer support

Victora, Cesar G. et al (2016), Breastfeeding in the 21st century: epidemiology, mechanisms, and lifelong effect. The Lancet, Volume 387, Issue 10017, 475 – 490.

For further information contact Shereen Fisher, Chief Executive Officer, The Breastfeeding Network, @shereen_fisher,

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  1. Comment by Jane Barnes posted on

    This is all very interesting and useful but until we get feet on the ground to help mums in a practical way then it feels a bit meaningless. The funding has been stopped for BFN in West Berks so we have no longer got that resource and Health Visiting is already stretched. It isn't commissioned so everything we do isn't funded which comes to the nub of the problem. If we have lots of info we need to have the ability and opportunity to share it.

  2. Comment by Lyn Scazafabo RGN, IBCLC posted on

    Shame on you PHE and chief nurse VIV

    setting women up to fail! Tell them all the great things about breastfeeding and then frustrate them by taking all the funding away for breastfeeding programmes and Lactation consultant support.

    You should be campaigning so that women who need a breastpump (medically necessary or a shell or a shield or a supplemental nursing system can get it on Rx.

    What is wrong with you people are you really so out of touch with the very families you are promoting healthy life styles to????

    • Replies to Lyn Scazafabo RGN, IBCLC>

      Comment by Viv Bennett posted on

      Thank you for sharing your views. I can assure you we are not setting women up to fail. Public Health England’s role is to improve the health of the whole population by sharing our information and expertise and supporting local authorities and the NHS to plan and provide health and social care services. We do not make decisions on funding for breastfeeding programmes and lactation consultation support. For local providers that do make decisions on support services it is important they have access to evidence-based information and, through campaigns such as #CelebrateBreastfeeding, we can make such information available and help influence those decisions. Also by encouraging health professionals to share good practice on breastfeeding we can help strengthen the services provided.

  3. Comment by Natalie posted on

    The breastfeeding ‘support’ I received on the post-natal ward was abysmal - conflicting messages from different midwives and generally being made to feel guilty because my baby was struggling to feed effectively. It was only when I went to the milk spot drop-in clinics that I got really good support that was encouraging and positive. I am now happily breastfeeding my three month old but I’m still so angry about my early experience on the post-natal ward - no wonder so many new mums give up.

    • Replies to Natalie>

      Comment by Viv Bennett posted on

      Thank you for your comments and sharing your personal experience. I’m sorry you feel you got such poor support at the post-natal ward. It is important services receive constructive feedback, so I would encourage you to share with the Trust how you feel they could have supported you better. Consistent, whole-system support is essential and, as with anything in life, a bad experience can limit and shape our choices and decisions. We hope our #CelebrateBreastfeeding campaign was able to spread the message that it is everyone’s business in healthcare to support breastfeeding mothers, making them feel comfortable in their choices. I’m delighted you are now happily breastfeeding.

  4. Comment by Vanessa posted on

    Women need to be empowered to breastfeed. It’s a lot about confidence and determination. I knew I wanted to breastfeed my children because of all of the benefits. It was tough, but I got through it with support from primarily my husband, but also from professionals and family. I attended 2 ante natal classes on breastfeeding with my husband so we both knew what to expect (almost). These classes should be compulsory! Women can then make informed decisions about whether they wish to breastfeed and their family/friends can attend to know how best to support.

  5. Comment by Charlotte posted on

    If you want to increase breastfeeding rates you’re going to have to ensure new mums get the support they need. I desperately wanted to breastfeed but my baby simply wouldn’t latch on, I was constantly asking the midwives for help and tried many different positions and techniques but absolutely nothing worked. I then asked to see the specialist only to be told they didn’t have time! All of this led to my baby becoming ill as he wasn’t getting enough food so I made the decision to give up and switch to formula.

    • Replies to Charlotte>

      Comment by Viv Bennett posted on

      Thank you for your comments and for sharing your personal experience. I am sorry you didn’t get the support required as it is vital each mother has advice and support geared to her own and child’s needs. Service providers need to receive constructive feedback to improve the support they offer, so I hope you were able to do this. We hope our short #CelebrateBreastfeeding campaign was able to increase the understanding amongst those involved in service provision of the wide range of support needed, as well as the good practice that can be learnt from, in order to improve support based on an understanding of the benefits from breastfeeding.