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.
Maternal Mental Health Day is on the first Wednesday in May, which this year was 6th May. A group of organisations has launched a new survey to try to capture parents’ experiences in the context of a global pandemic and social distancing. If the survey can be distributed widely to parents with a baby/child under 2 year, or are pregnant, to gather the views of parents of a range of ages, ethnicities and experiences, the data will be particularly useful.
The theme for World Breastfeeding Week this year is “Empower parents, enable breastfeeding,” which fits the philosophy of our WBTi work very well. The WBTi recommendations have been produced by a Core Group of 18 of the UK’s key government agencies, health professional organisations and charities working in infant and maternal health. The 46 recommendations, across ten areas of policy and programmes, parallel many of the recommendations of previous national breastfeeding initiatives such as the UNICEF Baby Friendly Call to Action, the Becoming Breastfeeding Friendly project (completed in Wales and Scotland so far), and the Breastfeeding Manifesto.
The WBTi assessment and recommendations for action are all about providing the structures, policies and programmes that families need in order to support mothers and infants to be able to breastfeed successfully. It is not a woman’s responsibility on her own, it is the responsibility of ALL of us, across society, to provide the support that mothers and babies need.
Our UK report found many gaps and barriers in ten areas of policy and programmes across the UK:
Lack of national leadership and national strategy on infant feeding, except in Scotland.
Areas where maternity settings still do not meet the minimum UNICEF Baby Friendly standards, in particular in England.
Weak regulations governing marketing by baby milk companies, no regulations governing bottle and teat marketing, and little enforcement of existing provisions.
Lack of provisions to support new mothers to continue breastfeeding when they return to work.
Gaps in health care professional training in infant and young child feeding (See both Part 1 and Part 2 of the WBTi report for full details)
Cuts to peer support and other community breastfeeding support.
No national communications strategy on breastfeeding.
Lack of understanding of current guidance on breastfeeding for HIV+ mothers.
No national guidance on planning for the care of infants and young children in emergencies or disasters.
Poor data collection and monitoring of breastfeeding rates.
Highlights of progress
There are several bright spots, however, and in the two years since the WBTi report and recommendations were published, there have been improvements in several areas
National policy work: Scotland already had strong national policy leadership. Scotland, Wales and England have taken part in the Becoming Breastfeeding Friendly project on scaling up breastfeeding interventions, with a government commitment to act on recommendations.
With the latest NHS England Long Term Plan, all of the UK has now pledged to reach full UNICEF Baby Friendly accreditation in all maternity settings.
Increased awareness of International Code issues in the UK include a relaunch of the UK Baby Feeding Law Group, a coalition of UK organisations working in infant and maternal health, to advocate for implementation of the International Code in UK law.
The Alliance for Maternity Rights has included the protection of flexible breastfeeding/ expressing breaks and suitable facilities in their Action Plan.
Continued cuts to local authority and public health budgets has continued to severely impact community breastfeeding support such as trained peer support. The WBTi team organised a conference on the public health impact of breastfeeding with the Institute for Health Visiting, exploring in particular the UNICEF Baby Friendly community requirements for “basic” health professional BFI training, “additional” local trained support such as peer support groups, and a “specialist” referral pathway at IBCLC level. The BFI, NICE and Public Health England guidance are clearly explained in the “Guide to the Guidance” by Better Breastfeeding. However there is potential for strengthening the commissioning of integrated breastfeeding services, through the increased profile of breastfeeding in England in the NHS Long Term Plan, breastfeeding representation now being included in the NHS England National Maternity Transformation Programme Stakeholder Group, and in Scotland and Wales with renewed national leadership and funding.
Although no national communication strategies on breastfeeding have been developed, the national governments and public health agencies have developed breastfeeding campaigns and have supported national breastfeeding weeks again across all four nations.
Infant feeding in emergencies is still not covered by national guidance or universally in local disaster resilience planning, however a national forum hosted by Alison Thewliss MP, and led by the UK WBTI team and Dr Ruth Stirton from the University of Sussex Law School has kick-started the discussion to improve awareness and standards.
So we are in interesting times – we still face budgetary and cultural challenges, and families still face many barriers.
However change is clearly happening!
Coming up on the WBTi blog for #WBW2019
For World Breastfeeding Week, we are hosting a number of guest blogs detailing some exciting innovations: The launch of the Hospital Infant Feeding Network, with a website and a collection of posters and resources for health professionals working with mothers, infants and young children in hospital.
A new set of educational resources on breastfeeding and medications for pharmacists, from the wonderful Wendy Jones.
And a blog looking at some of the public health issues around breastfeeding support in the community, from Alice Allan IBCLC MPH.
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See Part 1 of WBTis’ Twelve Days of Christmas, covering our Indicators 1-6, here
Day 7 – seven swans a-swimming
Swans evoke an image of serenity, even if they’re paddling hard under the water. Support to make breastfeeding more effective can help mothers be calmer and more serene, even though they’re working hard caring for their child or children.
Indicator 7 is about information. There is plenty available, particularly on the internet, but mothers often need help selecting reliable websites. Resources developed since the WBTi report include a new book by Amy Brown (The Positive Breastfeeding Book), a chatbot available on Facebook and and as an Alexa app from PHE, and more breastfeeding information on the Baby Buddy app.
Indicator 7 also asks whether there is a national communications strategy on infant feeding – while there are strategies in place in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, there is still no communications strategy on infant feeding in England.
In the song, the seven swans represent the seven sacraments, which are Christian rites. There are perhaps seven occasions for a mother when she is in particular need of accurate information about feeding her baby – antenatally, at birth, early days, the challenges when her baby is a few months old, introducing complementary foods, returning to work and stopping breastfeeding.
Day 8 – eight maids a-milking
The maids symbolise beatitudes (blessings) for people considered as unfortunate. Indicator 8 addresses support for HIV+ mothers. There needs to be both appropriate policy and familiarity with the policy by people working with HIV+mothers. In 2016 WHO published revised guidelines recommending that in countries where health services ‘provide and support lifelong anti-retroviral therapy (ART), including adherence counselling, and promote and support breastfeeding among women living with HIV, the duration of breastfeeding should not be restricted.’ In the UK, BHIVA published revised guidelines in 2018. As in its previous guidelines, these still recommend formula feeding for women living with HIV but also explicitly support women who choose to breastfeed, provided they fulfil certain criteria. The new guidelines are more detailed than the previous ones; they encourage openness and respect the importance of breastfeeding for a mother’s own mental health.
If there were more donor milk available, mothers who don’t meet the clinical criteria for breastfeeding outlined by BHIVA could use it and enable their babies to have breastmilk. Then ‘Maids a-milking’ can be thought of as ‘donor mothers expressing’.
Day 9 – nine ladies dancing
Ladies dancing is how the song represents ‘fruit of the Holy Spirit‘ – beneficial attributes of a person or community, such as love, patience, kindness and self-control.
Indicator 9 assesses the extent to which policies and programmes are in place to ensure that infants and young children will be fed appropriately during emergencies. Those acting on behalf of the community in emergencies need to plan ahead to provide care that is beneficial and supports optimal infant feeding.
The WBTi report found that infants and young children had largely been overlooked in emergency planning in the UK. The WBTi team and Ruth Stirton from the University of Sussex Law School organised a well-attended forum at the Houses of Parliament in November 2017 to start raising awareness of the issue, with LCGB holding a study event the following week, and a policy briefing is due to be published in 2019.
WBTi UK joint coordinator Helen Gray has also presented on the issue at several conferences in the UK and internationally, and contributed a chapter on infant feeding in emergencies for parents in Amy Brown’s The Positive Breastfeeding Book.
The WBTI UK recommendations include extending data collection to include breastfeeding rates at 6 months and one year, by incorporating questions in the existing health visitor contacts.
Day 11 – eleven pipers piping
The pipers symbolise the eleven faithful apostles. There are many people willing to advocate better support for mothers who want to breastfeed, but far more than eleven!
Indicator 11 asks what percentage of babies are breastfed within the first hour following birth. At the time of the report it was 60%. The key action immediately after birth is unhurried, uninterrupted skin-to-skin contact. During skin-to-skin contact in that first ‘magical’ hour the baby shows nine instinctive, distinct and observable stages, which with the mother-baby dyad makes eleven elements. Interrupting skin-to-skin even briefly for routine care disrupts this essential sequence and can impact the baby’s success at reaching the stage of latching on and suckling the first time.
The drummers symbolise the Apostles’ creed, which was an early statement of Christian belief.
Indicator 12 is a measure of the amount of exclusive breastfeeding that happens in a country among babies up to 6 months old. The report had to use 2010 data as these were the most recent; the data gave 17%, meaning the total amount of breastfeeding was the same as if 17% of babies were exclusively breastfed to 6 months and the other 83% totally formula-fed.
There is enough evidence for the better outcomes if infants are exclusively breastfed to 6 months for WHO to recommend it since 2003, yet there seems a lot of doubt in UK society about the value of doing so. Somehow the evidence hasn’t become belief for many people.
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.
On Tuesday 28th, Dr Ruth Stirton of the University of Sussex joined forces with the World Breastfeeding Trends Initiative (WBTi) Steering Group, along with Marie McGrath of the Emergency Nutrition Network, to present on the topic of safe provision for feeding infants and young children in emergencies in the UK. This WBTi UK first anniversary forum was hosted by Alison Thewliss MP, chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Infant Feeding and Inequalities, at the Houses of Parliament.
Participants included infant feeding specialists and policy makers, emergency planners, international academics, and third sector organisations such as UNICEF UK Baby Friendly Initiative and Save the Children.
We heard from Clare Meynell and Helen Gray (WBTi UK) on the findings, gaps and recommendations from the WBTi UK report surrounding infant feeding in emergencies. Ruth Stirton presented on the legal and regulatory framework and the minimal place of infants and young children in the current framework. Marie McGrath then described the recently published 2017 Operational Guidance on Infant Feeding in Emergencies, and explored how it might be adapted to the UK context.
The audience engaged in lively group discussion, considering:
the issues in the immediate response phase
how best to support formula feeding families in emergency situations
mapping the existing local capabilities that emergency plans could call upon
issues surrounding communication with the public and front line responders about how best to support infants and young children in emergencies
the wider policy framework and how best to ensure that infants and young children are specifically provided for
issues for the longer term recovery phase after the emergency
A report will be published in 2018 making recommendations for improvements. If you would like to contribute written comments to the report, please look at the presentations and group materials and send comments by email to Ruth Stirton email@example.com
Indicator 9 focuses on national planning for the protection of infants and young children in case of emergency: is there a strategy in place to ensure that suitable nutrition and support is quickly put in place for families in the event of a disaster?
Infants and young children are our most vulnerable citizens in any emergency situation. They need protection, as their immune systems are immature, they have specific nutritional requirements, and they can’t wait several days for an emergency response to meet their needs, especially in a high-risk setting.
Disasters and emergencies in the UK
The UK is not immune from disasters. These can range from storms and flooding, to catastrophic fires and terrorist incidents.
More recently, in response to the arrival of Hurricane Ophelia in Ireland and the UK, the WBTi team has joined in setting up a social media awareness campaign on protecting infants and young children in emergencies, using memes like the one below to communicate key concepts on the Safely Fed UK Facebook page.
Gaps in policies worldwide
Yet around the world, the WBTi global report has found that planning for infants in emergencies is one of the weakest policy areas in infant feeding in many countries.
Global guidance and recommendations
The World Health Assembly (WHA), composed of delegations from all our countries, has recognized the importance of including planning for infants and young children in all disaster-preparedness planning. WHA Resolution 63.23 calls on all nations to incorporate the international standards outlines in the Operational Guidance on Infant Feeding in Emergencies.
The newest update of the Operational Guidance has just been published by the international Infant Feeding in Emergencies Core Group, which brings together leading humanitarian organisations and experts working in this field.
Planning for the protection of infants in emergencies in the UK
The WBTi assessment of UK policy in 2016 found that there is no central national strategy on infant and young child feeding in emergencies, but that emergency planning is devolved to local areas.
(See Indicator 9 on UK policy on planning for infants in emergencies here )
Our first Anniversary Forum, to be hosted by Alison Thewliss MP, chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Infant Feeding and Inequalities, at the Houses of Parliament in November, will bring together emergency planners, members of Local Resilience Forums, government agencies, researchers and infant nutrition specialists to explore how protecting infants and young children can be woven into the UK emergency-preparedness system.
Helen Gray 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 represents LLLGB on the UK Baby Feeding Law Group, and serves on the La Leche League International special committee on the International Code.
Guidance is needed on infant and young child feeding for families in the UK affected by disasters and emergencies.
Heather Trickey and Helen Gray.
Disaster and emergency situations – floods, fires, terrorist attacks and widespread power failures – can affect any country, including the UK. In any disaster or emergency, babies are vulnerable and continued access to adequate and safe nutrition is essential. Families need support to ensure that children continue to be cared for and fed in line with their needs.
Babies who are fully or partially formula fed are at risk if their caregivers lose access to clean water, are unable to sterilise feeding equipment or suffer disruption or contamination of their formula milk supplies. A suitable environment for preparation and storage of feeds, sterilising equipment, boiling water and safe storage such as a refrigerator, are all needed to prevent bacterial contamination
Risks for breastfed babies
Breastfeeding protects against infection and can be comforting to infants and mothers during difficult times. Mothers’ supply of breastmilk is resilient, however, chaos, displacement and emotional strain, coupled with commonly held misconceptions about how breastfeeding works, can undermine a mother’s confidence and result in less frequent feeding. Breastfeeding mothers need access to the option of feeding in a private space and reassurance that continuing to breastfeed is the best option for their baby.
Skilled support can help mothers resolve breastfeeding problems and maintain the protective effect of full or partial breastfeeding. If breastfeeding helpers are not pre-authorised as part of planned disaster response the immediate help that families need can be delayed.
Risks associated with donated formula milk
The world is a better place than we sometimes think. When a disaster strikes, ordinary people often respond with an outpouring of generosity. We give clothes, equipment and food spontaneously and in response to public calls.
In the absence of guidance, agencies responsible for co-ordinating emergency response and volunteers working on the front line are often not aware that donations of formula milk can put babies at risk. Risks from donated formula milk include inadvertently distributing products that are unsuitable for babies under six months or for babies with special nutritional needs, as well as distributing milk that is contaminated or out-of-date. There is also a risk that donations will be inappropriately provided to parents of breastfed babies, which can undermine the protective effect of breastfeeding and cause parents to become dependent on a continued supply of formula milk.
International guidelines for emergency feeding caution against accepting donations of formula milk. It is recommended that emergency planners and first responders, with expert advice, take responsibility for purchase and distribution of appropriate formula milks in line with the needs of each family.
UK-based emergencies have tended to be highly localised and short-term. However, UK guidance will need to ensure preparedness for longer-term support needs, for UK charities and for displaced families and unaccompanied children who have sought refuge from outside of the UK.
Several UK agencies have developed guidance with limited scope. The Food Safety Agency has issued guidance to support safe preparation of formula milk in response to flooding and contamination of local water supplies. A toolkit has also been developed to support food banks, including preventing and managing unsolicited formula milk donations.
How to help ensure babies’ nutritional needs are protected
In the absence of national guidance, relief co-ordinators and agencies and members of the public will be concerned to do the right thing in response to a disaster. There is an urgent need to improve planning and raise awareness about the best ways to support infant and child feeding. These key points from have been adapted from UK and international guidance: 1) Members of the public
DO donate money to key agencies. This is the best way to support parents who need to buy formula milk. Money will allow parents, caregivers or coordinating aid organisations to buy the most appropriate milk to meet the individual needs of each baby. Donated formula milk can inadvertently put babies at risk.
DO offer your time to help agencies co-ordinating relief. Support and encourage mothers who are breastfeeding. Breastfeeding is protective against infection, and provides the baby with the safest possible nutrition.
2) Relief workers and aid agencies
DO have a local plan to support infant and young child feeding in emergencies in place for local authorities, first responders and aid agencies. All families should be screened to ensure they receive appropriate support or supplies.
DO ensure that mothers who are fully or partially breastfeeding have the support they need to continue. Mothers can seek support from their midwife or health visitor. Local emergency planning should have identified appropriate infant feeding support from local health and voluntary services. There are telephone helplines which support caregivers with all aspects of infant feeding:
NCT helpline (0300 330 0700)
The National Breastfeeding Helpline (0300 100 0212).
DO encourage donations of money to recognised agencies so that parents, caregivers and agencies can buy any formula or supplies needed, rather than donations of formula products.
Appropriate support or supplies including cash cards specifically for the purchase of infant formula and complementary foods for young children could be considered.
DO ensure that formula milk is purchased and distributed only for babies who need formula milk, following basic screening of families (simple triage tools have been recently been developed for use in emergency situations in Greece and Canada).
DO NOT distribute formula milk in an untargeted way.
There is an urgent need for UK governments to ensure infant and child nutrition is protected as part of the planned new strategy for resilience in major disasters. Local authorities and relief agencies require national guidance to develop local strategies so that we can all be better prepared.
Heather Trickey is a Research Associate based in DECIPHer, Cardiff University. Her research focuses on public health policy and parents, particularly Infant Feeding Policy.
Helen Gray is Joint Coordinator of the World Breastfeeding Trends (WBTi) UK Working Group.