Member blog: Breastfeeding and Obesity

04 June 2019

Late April saw a flurry of articles from the Guardian covering breastfeeding. It’s useful to see the media give attention to the subject but especially so when it highlights robust research alongside the very sorry state we are in when it comes to supporting women and families with breastfeeding.

The standout piece for me was the article of the April 30th ‘Breastfeeding reduces child obesity risk by up to 25%’. This article gives new evidence to the very real contribution that breastfeeding makes in reducing child obesity while at the same time supporting a wide range of improved health outcomes for women regardless of their backgrounds.

The data came from nearly 30,000 children monitored as part of the WHO Childhood Obesity Surveillance initiative (COSI). Launched in 2007, COSI is continuously being updated and now receives data from about 40 countries on children aged six to nine. But rather awkwardly not the UK. With one in five children in the UK already overweight or obese before they start school, the measures offered by the UK at 4 and 11 seem too little – too late.

In a society that struggles to accept breastfeeding as a universal norm, the contribution that independent evidence can make to help shape public opinion is powerful. However, it must be used proactively by Governments to invest in measures to protect breastfeeding and invest in the support services that enable mothers and families to carry out their choices.

We have a problem in the UK in that we fail to support a woman’s intention to breastfeed.

Here’s the story. In the UK most women start to breastfeed, (initiation rates are over 70%). However, many women reduce or stop breastfeeding in the first few days and weeks. The majority of mothers want to carry on. Many mothers say that they stopped because of lack of support - no time or skilled guidance was around to help them learn to do it.  For many women who want to breastfeed but struggle to do it through lack of support this becomes a personal failure. The injustice of it is that they are being failed. The rapid drop off rates in breastfeeding represent feelings of crashing disappointment for many women who tell us they carry the pain of their breastfeeding struggles for years. Lack of timely, quality and consistent early days support leaves them ill-equipped to deal with the challenges of coping with a newborn, they then return home to struggle on in communities where breastfeeding culture varies widely and support around them may exist or not, and may not be easy to access.  

We agree with Kate Brintworth, head of maternity transformation at the Royal College of Midwives, who said the study reinforced the need to put more resources into supporting women to breastfeed:
“We need both more specialist breastfeeding support for women after the birth and more time for midwives to offer the support women are telling us they need. It is important that we respect a woman’s infant feeding choices, and that if a woman chooses not to breastfeed, for whatever reason, she will need to be supported in that choice.”

In the UK, obesity costs are estimated to be at least £27 billion every year and obesity is poised to overtake smoking as a key cause of cancer. It’s critical that national leaders champion for change and for investment in obesity prevention and for support services to start much earlier. However, the UK government does not have a strong track-record in addressing infant feeding as part of the obesity agenda, despite there being a wealth of evidence about the importance of it. In the childhood obesity strategy published in 2016 the top line was introducing the soft drinks industry levy.

The Breastfeeding Network would like to see the Government go further. While focus on the problem of pervasive junk food advertising at children and families is essential, we must not ignore the role of breastfeeding in contributing to improved health outcomes for children and mothers and offering protection against obesity. The positive research from WHO is another crucial building block of evidence of the health protection benefits that breastfeeding offers, and it is one that Government should not ignore.

Contact: Shereen Fisher, Chief Executive Breastfeeding Network

 

References:

UK breastfeeding rates are low. Although 81% of mothers in the UK begin to breastfeed, by six weeks that has fallen to 24% in England, 17% in Wales and 13% in Northern Ireland, 8 in 10 women said they gave up breastfeeding before they wanted to, according to the latest data, from 2010 Infant Feeding Survey: https://digital.nhs.uk/data-and-information/publications/statistical/infant-feeding-survey/infant-feeding-survey-uk-2010

https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2019/apr/30/breastfeeding-reduces-child-obesity-risk-by-up-to-25-who-finds

A full list of studies can be found on the Unicef Baby Friendly site here (infant health)

https://www.unicef.org.uk/babyfriendly/news-and-research/baby-friendly-research/infant-health-research/infant-health-research-obesity/  and here (maternal health)  https://www.unicef.org.uk/babyfriendly/news-and-research/baby-friendly-research/maternal-health-research/maternal-health-research-obesity/