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New Start4Life campaign aims to tackle barriers to public breastfeeding

Breastfeeding mother and baby

Public Health England’s parenting advice service Start4Life has launched a new campaign which aims to encourage new mothers to give their babies the best start in life – with support from the general public.

The latest Start4Life poll found that, although 72% of people claim to support breastfeeding, only around half of those polled said women should feel free to feed whenever and wherever their baby is hungry, including while eating at a restaurant or on public transport.

PHE says, while the poll confirms the majority of people believe breastfeeding in public is acceptable, there is more to be done to make it more accepted and welcomed by all.

As many as 60% of mothers who breastfeed said they take steps to hide when feeding and 34% said they felt ‘embarrassed or uncomfortable’ breastfeeding their baby outside of their own home. 21% of mothers also said they believe the public do not want them to breastfeed in public places.

Under UK law, it is illegal to ask a breastfeeding mother to stop feeding or to leave a public place, yet numerous examples of women being told to cover their baby while feeding have made headlines in recent months, attracting mixed public commentary. Earlier this year, Facebook changed its guidelines to allow mothers to post images of themselves breastfeeding, however women’s groups report that such images are still being regularly reported and removed for containing nudity.

The poll also revealed that as many as 1 in 10 new mothers say they actively choose not to nurse their babies from the outset because of the social stigma attached to breastfeeding, which some experts believe should be dealt with as a public health issue.

The World Health Organization actively promotes breastfeeding as ‘the best source of nourishment for infants and young children’. It states that breastfeeding is one of the most effective ways to ensure child health since it offers a host of health benefits for both child and mother. For optimal benefits, the WHO recommends infants be exclusively breastfed - where breast milk is the sole source of nutrition - for six months and then alongside solid foods until the age of two. The NHS also recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life.

Breastfeeding stigma

Start4Life is launching a series of animated films supportive of breastfeeding in public which share real life experiences in an effort to help break down the barriers and stigma attached to breastfeeding.

Baby Eating

Dr Ann Hoskins, Deputy Director, Health and Wellbeing at Public Health England says: “Breastfeeding gives babies the best start in life, and it comes with a whole host of benefits for the mother too. Anxiety about breastfeeding in public certainly shouldn’t be a barrier to breastfeeding in general.

“One of the great benefits of breastfeeding is that it can be done anytime and anywhere, so as a society we need to help new mothers feel comfortable in feeding their babies wherever and whenever they need to, and we all have a role to play in that.”

Dr Gill Thomson, from the Maternal and Infant Nutrition and Nurture Unit at the University of Central Lancashire says: “Worries about stigma and embarrassment around breastfeeding can lead to some women feeling unable or unwilling to breastfeed in public. This can lead to isolation and some women stopping breastfeeding before they intended to.

“Breastfeeding is the most natural, healthy, best start a mother can provide for her infant. While legislation is in place to support public breastfeeding, more needs to be done to address the negative cultural attitudes that can undermine this choice.”

Health benefits of breastfeeding

PHE says breast milk has a positive impact on both baby’s and mother’s health, acting to establish a secure maternal attachment which many psychologists now recognise lays the foundations for good mental health throughout life. It provides babies with key nutrients that are unavailable in synthetically produced infant formula and offers increased immunity via antibodies from the mother, offering enhanced protection from common infections. For mothers, breastfeeding can lower the risk of developing post-natal depression, type 2 diabetes and breast and ovarian cancers.

In addition, PHE says babies that are breastfed are also less likely to become obese as children and adolescents, which can also have profound implications on health in later life.

Some studies suggest that children who were breastfed – and therefore able to access brain-building human amino acids during crucial mental development stages –  also perform better in intelligence tests.

Support for breastfeeding mothers

Although a natural process, breastfeeding is a skill that needs to be learned by both baby and mother and many women run into difficulties in the early days. NHS figures show 74% of women attempt to breastfeed following the birth of their baby, but by 6-8 weeks only 47% of women are still breastfeeding and PHE says that more needs to be done to support women to feel comfortable feeding for longer, including tackling public perception.

Support for Mothers and Breastfed Children

The Start4Life campaign offers tips from other mums and breastfeeding experts, as well as additional information and links to resources offering practical, local support.

For more information on the campaign, visit Start4Life.

To find out where you can access local breastfeeding support, visit the National Childbirth Trust.

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