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 media have been reporting today on the lack of legal protection in the UK for women to express milk or breastfeed when back at work. This is one of the reasons women cited for stopping breastfeeding in the U.K. National Infant Feeding Survey.
Media coverage of WBTi’s findings on gaps in Maternity Protection in the UK
The media seized upon our findings on the lack of maternity protection, in particular the lack of any statutory rights for mothers to breastfeed or express milk at work. There are resources to support employed mothers, and resources to guide best practice for employers (from Maternity Action and from ACAS), but mothers have no rights in law beyond basic health and safety.