Today, UNICEF UK have released a report which looked in to how increasing UK breastfeeding rates by giving Mums the support they deserve could save the NHS millions. The benefits of breastfeeding affect society as a whole and at a time where cancers and obesity are becoming more and more prevalent, in my opinion, this report should be taken very seriously.
‘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.
The report takes an in-depth look at how raising breastfeeding rates would save money through reducing illness. Calculations from a mere handful of illnesses, where the evidence is strongest, show that moderate increases in breastfeeding could see potential annual savings to the NHS of approx £40m per year.
However, this figure is likely to be only the tip of the iceberg when the full range of conditions affected by breastfeeding are taken into account.
For diseases where evidence was strongest, the authors produced quantitative economic models around five illnesses (breast cancer in the mother, and gastroenteritis, respiratory infections, middle ear infections and necrotising enterecolitis (NEC) in the baby), showing how moderate increases in breastfeeding would translate into cost 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, there would be:
- 865 fewer cases of breast cancer
- With cost savings to the NHS of over £21million
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
“We know that 90% of women who stop breastfeeding in the first six weeks discontinued before they had wanted to,” said UNICEF UK Deputy Executive Director Anita Tiessen.
“We want to see breastfeeding recognised as a major public health issue from government level through to local children’s centres, and appropriate investment and legislation put in place to give mothers a better experience of breastfeeding. The good news for commissioners, planners and decision makers is that our research shows that money invested to help women breastfeed for longer would provide a rapid financial return.”
I am one of the 90% and know first hand how wrong/non-existent breastfeeding support can make or break a Mum’s chances of getting off to a good start and continue breastfeeding for as long as they wish. The psychological implications of a woman expecting to but not being able to breastfeed are immense and the government and society in general are letting us down on a daily basis. The adversity faced by the majority of Mums can be overcome or avoided completely by good quality support before and after birth.
I am very happy to say that I am also one of the 10% and am still breastfeeding my youngest for as long as it feels right for us. This is only after I have educated myself and ignored societies ignorance regarding breastfeeding older babies/children and I’ve also become a Peer Supporter. I volunteer my time to help support other Mums who want to breastfeed and I am saddened at the government’s short-sightedness when it comes to funding breastfeeding support. In an attempt to save money, the funding for Breastfeeding Awareness Week has been abolished and in doing this, they have actually cost themselves more. It’s about time that breastfeeding support was recognised and put on a higher agenda to compete with the might of the formula companies who can afford to spend the majority of the cost of a tin on marketing alone.
Professor Mike Kelly, Director of the Centre for Public Health Excellence at NICE (National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence), who wrote the Foreword for the report, stated: “This report makes refreshing reading.
“The authors present an argument which in a nutshell promises to make considerable savings for the health services, produce long run health benefits and is a mechanism for changing the differences in health outcomes across social groups. The idea is of course simplicity itself; improving the rates of the initiation and the continuation of breastfeeding.”
In addition to better, consistent support across the NHS, there needs to be a change in the way we view and understand our babies. In a society where convenience often takes precedence, we need to understand newborn behaviour and act accordingly. The myths which surround breastfeeding and sleep especially need to be busted and the only way I can see this change will happen is if the government start advertising breastfeeding adequately, at least, on a par with formula advertising and ban formula advertising completely. Sex education needs to start including infant feeding too. We teach our children how to make babies but not how to feed them once they arrive!
“The fact that so few babies are being exclusively breastfed at six months – despite all the evidence showing this to be the healthiest option – is an indication of how difficult it is for mothers in the UK to choose breastfeeding as the sole means of feeding their baby,” said UNICEF UK Baby Friendly Director, Sue Ashmore.
“In order to remove some of the barriers that prevent women from successfully breastfeeding we need a change of approach throughout society. We want breastfeeding to become unremarkable, something that we see mothers doing all around us every day, so that breastfeeding skills are passed on socially.
“But we also need to ensure that the health services are fit for purpose, by ensuring that breastfeeding remains a priority for action, that there are properly staffed support services for breastfeeding mothers.”
Specifically, UNICEF UK is calling for:
- Leadership from government and policy makers recognising breastfeeding as a major public health issue
- Breastfeeding to be a priority action for all Health and Wellbeing Boards at national and local level, and the equivalent bodies in devolved governments
- Sufficient levels of well qualified staff in the NHS
- Consistently good quality support services to enable mothers to breastfeed for as long as they want to
- Campaigns to make people aware of the extensive health benefits of breastfeeding
- 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.
The report is full of statistics showing how breastfeeding could protect so many more babies and mothers in the UK and I recommend you read it. I’ll be following up this post with a number of other articles discussing more of the findings in the weeks to come. The absolute least the government could now do is reinstate funding for Breastfeeding Awareness Week and start asking questions on the appropriateness of formula. The benefits of breastfeeding and breastmilk are amazing but when all is said and done and you turn them on their head, they are also highlighting the risks of feeding formula.