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I wholeheartedly support new guidance released by the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) highlighting the need to tackle the UK's low breastfeeding rates.

This country has one of the lowest breastfeeding rates in the world, and shows little sign of improving despite the fact medical evidence proves it protects babies from infection and is beneficial to their mental and physical development.

Although nearly three-quarters of new UK mothers begin to breastfeed, within two months less than half (40%) are still doing so. At six months only a third (34%) of babies are receiving any breast milk and just 1% are exclusively being breastfed, as recommended by the World Health Organization.

The RCPCH highlights social stigma as a major barrier to breastfeeding and wants more to be done to support women to continue breastfeeding beyond the first few weeks. 

The RCPCH guidance, backed by midwives and health visitors, is based on latest research and aims to give practical advice on how long women should consider breastfeeding. 

It also makes the case for the health benefits of breastfeeding for both mother and child, as well as the cost savings to families and health services. Unicef research found even moderate increases in breastfeeding could save the NHS up to £40 million a year through fewer GP consultations and hospital admissions.

The RCPCH advises:

  • Mothers should be encouraged and supported to breastfeed exclusively for up to six months
  • Solid food should not be introduced before four months 
  • Solid food should be introduced from six months, ideally alongside breastfeeding to ensure the infant has adequate nutrition 
  • Mothers should be supported to continue breastfeeding for as long as they wish

As RCPCH President Professor Neena Modi says: "With the right support and guidance, the vast majority of women should be able to breastfeed. But although it’s natural, it doesn’t always come naturally. Some mothers cannot, or choose not to, breastfeed and this also needs to be respected. What society must get better at is removing the multiple barriers which can stand in the way of breastfeeding.

"Mums need support at the right time and place, including in the workplace from their employers, and a culture that promotes and encourages breastfeeding as a natural and positive thing to do. There must be a coordinated and determined approach across all the society if the situation is to be improved."

The RCPCH recommendations include:

  • familiarity with breastfeeding included as part of statutory personal, social and health education in schools
  • Government to legislate for employers to support breastfeeding through parental leave, feeding breaks and facilities suitable for breastfeeding or expressing breast milk
  • local breastfeeding support to be planned and delivered to mothers in the form of evaluated, structured programmes
  • the preservation of midwifery and health visiting services
  • Public Health England to develop a national strategy to change negative societal attitudes to breastfeeding
  • reinstatement of the UK-wide Infant Feeding Survey - cancelled in 2015 - to ensure reliable, comparable data on breastfeeding