Numbers of mothers breastfeeding their youngsters vary widely throughout the world and particularly when you look at those still breastfeeding after 12 months.
While breastfeeding is popular in places like Senegal, Gambia and Ethiopia, in other countries such as the USA mothers are more reticent but in the UK they are positively backward as, according an international study, that country has the lowest rate in the world.
Yes, that’s right- the worst. The study, published in the Lancet medical journal, says that only one in 200 women – or 0.5% – is still doing any breastfeeding after baby is a year old.
Compare that with 23% in Germany, 27% in USA, 56% in Brazil and 99% in Senegal.
The results are blamed on a ‘widespread misconception’ that breastfeeding is beneficial only in poor countries. It is, indeed, far more common in developing countries but the UK figures trail behind everyone.
So, how long should mothers feed their youngsters naturally?
Well many health bodies, including the World Health Organization (WHO), recommend using only breastfeeding for six months with no other foods or drinks other than vitamin D are being given. After that, partial breastfeeding is recommended until at least one year of age.
In the UK, mothers are advised to feed their babies on breast milk alone for the first six months and then a combination of breast milk and other foods. Interestingly, though, that advice does not give a recommendation as to how long they should continue.
Maybe that is why 81% of UK mothers had tried breastfeeding at some point but only 34% were breastfeeding at six months and just 0.5% at 12 months. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, 79% of US moms tried it, 49% were still there at six months and 27% made it to the year mark.
One of the report’s authors is Prof Cesar Victora, from the Federal University of Pelotas in Brazil. He said: “There is a widespread misconception that the benefits of breastfeeding only relate to poor countries. Nothing could be further from the truth, our work clearly shows that breastfeeding saves lives and money in all countries, rich and poor alike.”
The Lancet stated that breastfeeding in developed countries reduces the risk of sudden infant deaths by more than a third while, poorer ones, breastfeeding could halve the number of cases of diarrhoea and cut respiratory infections by a third. Overall, the report’s authors said that near-universal breastfeeding could save more than 800,000 children’s lives every year.
Both Save the Children UK and the World Health Organization are critical of formula milk being promoted at the expense of breastfeeding. In a joint statement they say: “The active and aggressive promotion of breast milk substitutes by their manufacturers and distributors continues to be a substantial global barrier to breastfeeding.
“Promotion and marketing have turned infant formula, which should be seen as a specialised food that is vitally important for those babies who cannot be breastfed, into a normal food for any infant.”
Some other people’s attitudes to breastfeeding in public are also cause for concern with many mothers reporting instances of being told to cover up or to breastfeed in private – often in the face of their legal right to do so in public areas. This sort of experience can surely lead many women to give up breastfeeding altogether.
This reminds me of an incident I witnessed in a café a few years ago. A mum was breastfeeding quite modestly while seated at her table when one middle-aged man objected and, when she refused to stop, complained to the manager – a young man in his early 20s.
To this day, I have never forgotten what happened next. The young man listened to the customer’s indignant complaint and then said calmly and with a dignity that belied his age: “Sir, I understand that you are not happy but if a mother feeds her baby naturally and you don’t like it, I suggest that you don’t look. If, on the other hand, you find that is not a satisfactory way to resolve the matter, I must ask you to leave as your continued complaints are disturbing other customers. Breastfeeding will be allowed while I am manager here.”
This was met by applause from the other customers, leading to a swift exit by the man and his wife. He was muttering about complaining to the owner.
The following week, I happened to be in the same café again. This time, the owner was there and we talked about the way his young manager had handled the problem. “Oh, I have great faith in James,” he said and pointed to a new sign on the wall. It was official, issued by the local health authority, saying ‘Breastfeeding welcome here’.