The Covid-19 pandemic has shown how important it is for countries to protect their citizens from illness.
Yet a new WBTi regional report shows gaps in support for families across Europe, with the poorest overall scores in national leadership and, shockingly, emergency preparedness, where the UK scored 0/10. This pandemic is an emergency for infants and young children and only North Macedonia was found to have an adequate strategy.
Babies who are breastfed have better health and resistance to infection, and most mothers want to breastfeed. Yet many European mothers stop or reduce breastfeeding in the early weeks and months, and bottle feeding is prevalent, due to inadequate support from health systems and society.
Launched today, the first European report on infant and young child feeding policies and practices, Are our babies off to a healthy start?, compares 18 countries and identifies the considerable improvements they need to make in supporting mothers who want to breastfeed. A summary report has been published today in theInternational Breastfeeding Journal.
The new report, Are our babies off to a healthy start?, compares the implementation of WHO’s Global Strategy for Infant and Young Child Feeding across 18 European countries. The comparisons show clearly that inadequate support and protection for breastfeeding mothers is a Europe-wide problem. The health of babies, mothers and whole populations lose out as a result. However, countries do differ considerably. Turkey rates highest overall; the five countries with the lowest scores belong to the European Union.
‘Nutrition is key to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals related to health, education, sustainable development, reduction of inequalities and more.’
Joao Breda, Head, WHO European Office for Prevention and Control of Noncommunicable Diseases
The scope of the assessment is wide-ranging, with ten policy and programme indicators, including national leadership, Baby Friendly hospital and community practices, marketing controls on breastmilk substitutes, health professional training, emergency preparedness and monitoring. There are also five feeding practices indicators, such as exclusive breastfeeding for 6 months, a WHO recommendation.
The original assessments were all carried out using the World Breastfeeding Trends Initiative (WBTi), a tool first developed in 2004 by the International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN) but only launched in Europe in 2015. It requires collaboration with relevant organisations within a country on assessment scores, gaps identified and recommendations for improvements. The Report highlights good practice, enabling countries to learn from one another.
˝Success …rests first and foremost on achieving political commitment at the highest level and assembling the indispensable human and financial resources.’
WHO Global Strategy 2003
If governments, other policymakers, hospitals and community services, public health departments, institutions that train health professionals, and others, adopt the report recommendations, it will enable more mothers to initiate and continue breastfeeding, strengthening the health of the population for the future.
The WBTi European Working Group, led by Dr. Irena Zakarija-Grkovic of Croatia, produced the Report and comprises coordinators from European countries which have carried out a WBTi assessment. The production of the report was supported by the Croatian Ministry of Health and UNICEF Croatia.
The new government needs to prioritise the first 1001 days of a child’s life, from conception to age two, to enable children to survive and thrive. How an infant is fed and nurtured strongly influences a child’s future life chances and emotional health. Importantly, if a woman breastfeeds there are substantial health benefits for her – having impacts onher future long after breastfeeding has stopped.
Independent, practical, evidence-based information and support is essential for every family. Supporting women with breastfeeding can go a long way to protecting children and mothers from a wide range of preventable ill health, including obesity and mental health problems.
This window of opportunity cannot be missed for the future health outcomes of mothers and the next generation. In addition to well documented health outcomes, supporting breastfeeding will also contribute to a stronger economy – potential annual savings to the NHS are estimated at about £40 million per year from just a moderate increase in breastfeeding rates.
Support for breastfeeding is also an environmental imperative and recognition of the contribution breastfeeding can make to avoiding environmental degradation should be a matter of increasing global and political attention.
In the UK, the majority of women start to breastfeed but breastfeeding rates drop rapidly – our continuation rates are some of the lowest in the world and are even lower amongst women living in deprived areas, where increasing rates could make a real difference to health inequalities. Support for all women, parents and families with breastfeeding falls short of what is wanted and needed.
Women tell us they encounter difficulties with the public perceptions of breastfeeding out of the home. Families tell us they are still regularly exposed to conflicting messaging and marketing for formula milks that drowns out advice from healthcare professionals.
Women tell us they receive little to no help with infant feeding and that their health visitors, midwives and doctors often have little training or knowledge about breastfeeding and limited time to support them.
Recent cuts in health visitor numbers and breastfeeding peer support services mean many women may be left without the support they need however they choose to feed their infants.
Despite robust evidence showing that investment in breastfeeding support and protection makes sense, politically breastfeeding has been viewed by governments as a lifestyle choice and so left to parents to work out for themselves. For too many women, trying to breastfeed without support, or stopping before they want to, is deeply upsetting and the situation is made worse by fragmented care, and poor and often conflicting advice from those they are seeking to support them. To ensure an increase in breastfeeding rates, to help reverse obesity rates and to reduce widening health inequalities will require significant investment in breastfeeding.
It is essential that our new government prioritises breastfeeding and invests in its support and protection.
We call on all political parties to commit to the following actions, if elected:
To appoint a permanent, multi-sectoral infant and young child feeding strategy group and develop, fund and implement a national strategy to improve infant and young child feeding practices.
To include actions to promote, protect and support breastfeeding in all policy areas where breastfeeding has an impact.
To implement the Unicef UK Baby Friendly Initiative across community and paediatric services, building on the recommendation for maternity services in the NHS Long Term Plan.
To protect babies from harmful commercial interests by bringing the full International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes into UK law and enforcing this law.
To commission, and sustainably fund, universal breastfeeding support programmes delivered by specialist/lead midwives and health visitors or suitably qualified breastfeeding specialists, such as IBCLC lactation consultants and breastfeeding counsellors, alongside trained peer supporters with accredited qualifications.
To maintain and expand universal, accessible, affordable and confidential breastfeeding support through the National Breastfeeding Helpline and sustaining the Drugs in Breastmilk Service.
To deliver universal health visiting services and the Healthy Child Programme by linking in with local specialist and support services.
To establish/re-establish universal Children’s Centres with a focus on areas of deprivation, offering breastfeeding peer support.
To make it a statutory right of working mothers and those in education to work flexibly as required and to access a private space and paid breaks to breastfeed and/or express breastmilk and manage its safe storage.
To commit to resourcing for charitableorganisations who play a key role within the health agenda working at a national and local level to support families and communities with infant feeding.
To support the commitment to undertake an Infant Feeding Survey which builds on the data previously collected in the Infant Feeding Survey 2010 (now discontinued).
To implement the recommendations of the Becoming Breastfeeding Friendly (BBF) study.
A UNICEF reportstates that “no other health behaviour has such a broad-spectrum and long-lasting impact on public health. The good foundations and strong emotional bonds provided in the early postnatal period and through breastfeeding can affect a child’s subsequent life chances”.
Evidence has also demonstrated that a child from a low-income background who is breastfed is likely to have better health outcomes than a child from a more affluent background who is formula-fed. Breastfeeding provides one solution to the long-standing problem of health inequality.
Research into the extent of the burden of disease associated with low breastfeeding rates is hampered by data collection methods. This can be addressed by investment in good quality research.
2. Borra C, Iacovou M, Sevilla A (2015) Maternal Child Health Journal (4): 897-907. New evidence on breastfeeding and postpartum depression: the importance of understanding women’s intentions.
3. Brown, A, Rance J, Bennett, P (2015) Understanding the relationship between breastfeeding and postnatal depression: the role of pain and physical difficulties. Journal of Advanced Nursing72 (2): 273-282
10. National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (2012) Improved access to peersupport NICE, London
11. Rollins N, Bhandari N, Hajeebhoy N, et al (2016) Why invest, and what it will take to improve breastfeeding practices? The Lancet387 491-504
12. Wilson AC, Forsyth JS, Greene SA, Irvine L, Hau C, Howie PW. 1998 Relation of infant diet to childhood health: seven year follow up of cohort of children in Dundee infant feeding study. BMJ. Jan 3;316(7124):21-5.
The First 1000 Days of Life (from conception to the age of two years) are a critical window in a baby’s development. The 1000 Days concept was first widely used by the World Health Organisation and UNICEF, and there are currently numerous campaigns building on that theme.*
A focused briefing on the the role of breastfeeding on infant brain growth and emotional development can be found here.
Breastfeeding: cornerstone of the First 1000 Days
Human babies are born extremely immature compared to other mammals; they are completely dependent on their mothers for milk, comfort and warmth.
“A newborn baby has only three demands. They are warmth in the arms of its mother, food from her breasts, and security in the knowledge of her presence. Breastfeeding satisfies all three.” ~ Grantly Dick-Read
Scientific research has continued to underscore the vital role that breastfeeding and breastmilk play in the development of the human infant. See our WBTi blog series for this year’s World Breastfeeding Week, from 31st July – 7th August 2018 for a review of the myriad ways that breastfeeding influences human development.
Breastfeeding: more than just food
This is the title of a series of blogs by Dr Jenny Thomas which focuses on some of the ways that breastfeeding contributes to immune development and more. Beyond physical health and development, however, breastfeeding also plays a key role in the healthy mental and emotional development of the infant. Breastfeeding provides optimal nutrition for the first months and years of life, alongside suitable complementary food after six months, but it also supports the development of the child’s immune system and protects against a number of non-communicable diseases in later life as well.
The impact of breastfeeding on maternal and infant mental health and wellbeing.
Breastfeeding can help strengthen mother and baby’s resilience against adversity, and can protect infants even when their mothers suffer from postnatal depression. It supports optimal brain growth and cognitive development. Unfortunately, if mothers don’t receive the support they need with breastfeeding, this can significantly increase their risk of postnatal depression. A summary of evidence can be found here.
It is essential that policy makers, commissioners, and researchers understand the evidence and importance of breastfeeding, so that women who want to breastfeed get any support they need. The WBTI report outlines major policies and programmes that national infant feeding strategies need to include; other research on the psychological and cultural influences on mothers’ infant feeding decisions will help policy makers to develop sensitive and sound policies and programmes to support all families.
In the end, it will be essential that families themselves are heard, in order to create the support systems that our society needs.
*Unfortunately a number of infant milk and baby food companies have jumped on the “1000 Days” bandwagon too, despite the fact that breastfeeding is the centrepiece of the original 1000 Days concept, and replacing breastmilk with formula or baby food actually removes that fundamental building block from a baby’s development.
Helen Gray MPhil IBCLC is Joint Coordinator of the World Breastfeeding Trends Initiative (WBTi) UK Working Group. She is on the national committee of Lactation Consultants of Great Britain, and is also an accredited La Leche League Leader. She is a founding member of National Maternity Voices. She represents LLLGB on the UK Baby Feeding Law Group, and serves on the La Leche League International special committee on the International Code.
I imagine like me you have watched some pre-election television debates in the last few weeks. It’s easy to start daydreaming and picture yourself in that audience putting our leaders on the spot. If you had the opportunity to ask that one key question of the main political leaders and get it broadcast on national television, what would you choose to focus on?
For many of us who have been involved in the WBTi project, it’s a no-brainer: What would they do to improve the situation around breastfeeding and infant feeding in the UK?
Except you’ve only got one sentence to outline a situation that took WBTi more than 70 pages.
You’re talking about health care professional training and the international code of marketing of breastmilk substitutes, national leadership, maternity protection in the workplace, data collection. Plus, you are talking to people who don’t even realise there is a problem in the first place or have little understanding of the complexity. There are few soundbites developed for an issue that affects families across the UK and for a situation that many of us see is in crisis.
Breastfeeding is a public health imperative
Politicians are nervous to touch on an issue which they often see as being about individual choice rather than a ‘collective societal responsibility’, as Dr Nigel Rollins described breastfeeding in The Lancet report last year. But when you look at the reality of what is happening in the UK, there is no need to fear having a conversation about breastfeeding. It’s not controversial to be disappointed to hear that 86% of women who stopped breastfeeding in the first two weeks would have liked to have continued for longer. Or 63% of those who stopped before 10 months. It’s especially not controversial when you learn more about the impact of breastfeeding on maternal mental health and its role in reducing inequality.
Which politicians wouldn’t be interested in something UNICEF describe as ‘a natural safety net against the worst effects of poverty’ or a factor shown to have a significant impact on the national economy? We can read through the manifestos of the political parties and see references to obesity and child health and mental health and find ourselves exasperated that infant feeding hardly gets a mention. However, it IS there. In every discussion about fighting inequality or improving chances or protecting the environment or stimulating the economy or supporting parents or focusing on mental health. They just don’t KNOW it’s there.
It is our duty to get this message across.
We may not be sitting in a Question Time audience but we meet our candidates. We have their emails and Twitter accounts. We can speak to them once they are sitting MPs.
Use the WBTi sample email and add your own messages to all the candidates in your own area. What are the gaps in breastfeeding services in YOUR area? Tell YOUR story.
It’s about emphasising why funding matters and why breastfeeding support in the community isn’t a nice optional extra. We are hearing about the huge variation in community-based support across the UK. Cuts to services in England are particularly a worry. Parents are finding groups closing, peer support services disappearing and when they are struggling with more complex problems, there is often nowhere to go. Specialist positions are either being lost or the integration of services means signposting to more qualified breastfeeding specialists such as IBCLCs is confused.
There is no point sighing about the crisis in infant feeding unless we also act. No point in putting a nice meme on your social media account, without also making sure you take 5 minutes to educate a politician who may simply not understand the basics. No point having anger towards our leaders if they are uninformed. WE are the ones who can do the informing: the new parents, the breastfeeding organisations, the healthcare professionals. It’s all too easy for social media to become a place where we all just talk to people who already agree with us. It has never been easier in history for us to directly contact our candidates and politicians. They won’t understand these issues unless we educate them. It starts with one email or one tweet or one conversation.
See the Open Letter signed by dozens of royal colleges, health professional bodies, researchers and voluntary organisations
Responses from political parties
Baby Milk Action have asked all the major political parties about their breastfeeding and infant feeding related policies. You can read their letter, which refers to the WBTi UK report, and the responses they have received here.
Photo credit: Sophie Burrows
Emma Pickett IBCLC is Chair of the Association of Breastfeeding Mothers. She is also an ABM breastfeeding counsellor (www.abm.me.uk) in North London. She has supported breastfeeding mums in Haringey as a volunteer since 2008.
A number of local and national breastfeeding support organisations have documented cuts to funding and services providing breastfeeding support. This briefing paper was developed by several organisations with the help of volunteers from the WBTi UK team, setting out the current situation in England. It includes a partial list of cuts at the time of writing. Funding situations do change so please send any updates or corrections to firstname.lastname@example.org.