I’m a lactation consultant and writer who has just finished a Masters degree in Health Promotion at Leeds-Beckett University. This blog touches on some of the insights that my studies have given me, not least how data, like WBTi’s reports, can help health promoters create integrated, sustainable solutions that make health a resource to be shared by everyone.

In 1986, the World Health Organization (WHO) Ottawa Charter for Health Promotion defined Health Promotion as “the process of enabling people to increase control over, and to improve, their health.” Whether the focus be on breastfeeding, preventing obesity, supporting mental health or any of the complex (so called ‘wicked’) problems that challenge our societies, it is health promotion’s recognition of the social determinants of health that has most affected my thinking.  All too often our society is quick to blame the individual for unhealthy behaviours; my increased awareness of the social determinants of health, that is, how socio-economic, cultural and environmental conditions determine individuals’ well-being, has changed my perception. It’s given me a heightened awareness of how prevailing political ideologies influence the way we think about society, and how this plays out into how likely (or not) individuals are to be able to make healthy choices throughout the course of their lives. 

“This unequal distribution of health-damaging experiences is not in any sense a ‘natural’ phenomenon but is the result of a toxic combination of poor social policies, unfair economic arrangements …and bad politics.” WHO[1]

To give an example, indicator 6 of the WBTi looks at community-based support, so key to women continuing to breastfeed.[2]In the UK, the recent NHS Long Term Plan’s recommendation of UNICEF UK Baby Friendly accreditation is cause for celebration and will boost the capacity of midwives and health visitors to support breastfeeding in the community.

However, cuts to peer-support services, and the closure of over 1000 Sure Start centres have disproportionately affected poorer members of society. If a mother in the community has persistent nipple pain, no car, no public transport, no money for a lactation consultant and her nearest breastfeeding group is 20 miles away, even with the support of the hard-working volunteers on the National Breastfeeding Helpline, her capacity to protect the health of her family through breastfeeding will be limited. 

Incidentally, the discipline of Health Promotion, while focusing on the up-stream causes of health inequalities, is also focused on empowering communities to participate in the creation of healthier societies. The UK’s WBTi report, under Indicator 6, points out that in England and Wales there is often little coordination between NHS services and peer-supporters, who can offer so much to new mothers. It recommends a range of integrated postnatal services that include voluntary sector breastfeeding support, meet local needs and provide clear access to specialist support.

Integrated breastfeeding support is outlined in the criteria for UNICEF Baby Friendly accreditation for community services:

  • Basic: universal services such as midwives, health visitors, and support workers are trained to BFI standards
  • Additional: a network of trained local peer supporters and support groups
  • Specialist: a referral pathway to specialist help at IBCLC level, for complex cases that cant be resolved by “Basic” and “Additional” support

The guidance and standards on community breastfeeding support from NICE, Baby Friendly and Public Health England are summed up in this “Breastfeeding Support Within Maternity Transformation Plans: Guide to the Guidance” by Better Breastfeeding.

As an individual health promoter, the scale and complexity of the social determinants of health can feel overwhelming. Nonetheless, recognising them sets the challenge to health promoters (in all disciplines, not just those who work in traditional health services or policy) to work empathetically, creatively and collaboratively. After all, ‘Success in breastfeeding is not the sole responsibility of a woman – the promotion of breastfeeding is a collective societal responsibility’ (The Lancet).


[1]Commission on Social Determinants of Health (2008). Closing the Gap in a Generation: Health Equity Through Action on the Social Determinants of Health (PDF). World Health Organization. 

[2]Dennis C (2002) The Effect of Peer Support on BreastFeeding Duration among Primiparous Women: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Canadian Medical Association Journal 166(1):21-8.

Alice Allan is a lactation consultant, writer and communication specialist who has worked in Ethiopia and Uzbekistan on maternal and child health. Her novel, Open My Eyes, (Pinter and Martin) set in an Addis Ababa NICU, recently won The People’s book Prize for Fiction. She currently lives near London with her family and an Ethiopian street dog called Frank.

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