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Guest post: Penny Alexander on the UNICEF breastfeeding research

October 18, 2012

UNICEF report reveals the cost of failing to support women to breastfeed

New research by UNICEF has revealed the staggering cost, to women, to babies and to the NHS, of not supporting women who want to breastfeed. I was asked to be among the first to share these findings over on my blog Alexander Residence and I am pleased to be able to share the on the Amoralia blog too. Basically the report suggests moderate increases in breastfeeding could reduce thousands of illnesses and in turn potentially save the NHS an estimated 40 million pounds a year, possibly in as little as one year.

Breastfeeding is an emotive topic, but for once this report isn’t about making women feel guilty. The Infant Feeding Survey indicates 90% of women who stopped breastfeeding in the first six weeks discontinued before they wanted to. Many of those women could have continued to breastfeed with the right support, from health workers, from wider society. We have one of the lowest rates of breastfeeding in the world, the UK is still failing to support women who want to breastfeed. UNICEF want the government to see breastfeeding as a public health issue.

UNICEF’s researchers, from universities across the UK, identified all the illnesses with links to breastfeeding, they then focused simply on the 5 illnesses where evidence of the positive effects of breastfeeding are strongest (breast cancer in the mother, and gastroenteritis, respiratory infections, middle ear infections and necrotising enterecolitis (NEC) in the baby).

The report then translated moderate increases in breastfeeding into health benefits for mother and baby, and into 40 million in savings for the NHS:

If half those mothers who currently do not breastfeed were to do so for up to 18 months over their life (e.g. 9 months per child for two children), there would be:

– 865 fewer cases of breast cancer
– With cost savings to the NHS of over £21 million
– Improved quality of life equating to more than £10 million
(Over the lifetime of each annual cohort of first-time mothers).
If 45% of babies were exclusively breastfed for four months, and if 75%
of babies in neonatal units were breastfed at discharge, each year there
would be:
– 3,285 fewer babies hospitalised with gastroenteritis and 10,637 fewer GP consultations, saving more than £3.6million
– 5,916 fewer babies hospitalised with respiratory illness, and 22,248 fewer GP consultations, saving around £6.7million
– 21,045 fewer GP visits for ear infection, saving £750,000
– 361 fewer cases of the potentially fatal disease necrotising enterocolitis, saving more than £6million
A small increase in breastfeeding could also increase the UK’s IQ, reduce obesity by 5%, and reduce at least 3 incidents of SIDS annually.

The report is the tip of the iceberg, there are many more chronic conditions, responsible for significant amounts of NHS budgets, such as heart disease, cancers, diabetes, asthma, where breastfeeding is linked to reduced incidence. More research is needed to comment on how significant an impact breastfeeding could have in these areas.

After I read the report I reflected on my own experiences. I might have spent 90 hours in labour, I might have had 2 emergency C sections, but I was incredibly lucky with support when it came to breastfeeding. I had amazing hospital staff and daily midwife visits for the first week, they taught a very tired, emotional and shell shocked me how to feed my baby.

It helped I’d had breastfeeding passed down to me by my mum, that I was surrounded by completely supportive friends and family. I also live in one of the highest concentrations of under fives in the UK, breastfeeding is a very normal sight.

Talking to new mums now, I realise what I thought was ‘normal’ just isn’t, daily midwife visits don’t exist in some areas, women are still made to feel really uncomfortable about breastfeeding, the media still undermines breastfeeding, and the right advice, which could fix so many problems, isn’t readily available.

UNICEF are now calling for government and policy makers to recognise breastfeeding as a major public health issue.  UNICEF want to ensure sufficient levels of well qualified staff in the NHS and consistent good quality support services.

UNICEF want legislation to tighten the law and prevent formula companies undermining breastfeeding, urgent research into how breastfeeding helps protect against some of the big killers like heart disease and diabetes, and campaigns to raise awareness of the health benefits.

Preventing Disease and Saving Resources: potential contribution of increasing breastfeeding rates in the UK, was carried out by a multi-university academic team including Dundee University, Oxford University, University of York, Brunel University, and St George’s, University of London, as well as the National Childbirth Trust.

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