Baby Milk Action press release 9 January 2016

Update 9 January: Government promises England will learn from other countries in UK to address failures highlighted in Lancet Breastfeeding Series (see below).

Leading mother support and health worker organisations in the UK have signed an open letter calling for coordinated action to empower mothers who want to breastfeed. Baby Milk Action, which monitors the baby food industry on behalf of the Baby Feeding Law Group (a coalition involving many of the signatories), has signed the letter, which beings:

“Last week, it was reported in The Lancet that breastfeeding rates at 12 months in the UK are the lowest in the world. What was not mentioned was that rates of starting breastfeeding have been increasing since the 1990s and are relatively high (81% in the last national survey2, in 2010). This is thanks to better communication about the importance of breastfeeding as well as the work of health service staff through the UNICEF Baby Friendly Initiative.

“However, rates plummet in the first weeks and months after birth, and most mothers say they stopped breastfeeding before they wanted to. Every mother’s decision about how to feed her baby needs to be made freely and respected. The breastfeeding crisis in the UK is in fact a crisis of lack of support for those mothers who choose to breastfeed. The result is that many mothers decide, reluctantly, that they must use infant formula.”

The full text of the letter has been published on the website of the UK working group for the World Breastfeeding Trends initiative (WBTi). This initiative assesses governments against progress in implementing the Global Strategy for Infant and Young Child Feeding.

Mike Brady, Campaigns and Networking Coordinator, Baby Milk Action signed the letter on behalf of the Baby Feeding Law Group and said:

“The National Infant Feeding Survey shows the majority of mothers wanted to breastfeed for longer. The UK has repeatedly given its support to the Global Strategy for Infant and Young Child Feeding at the World Health Assembly, but has not only failed to implement it, in some respects it is going backwards – perhaps that is why the 2015 survey was cancelled, to hide the impact of policy failures and cuts.

“It is not only breastfeeding that needs protecting, mothers who use formula are also being let down by the government’s failure to implement World Health Assembly marketing standards.

“We and others have won cases at the Advertising Standards Authority against claims made for formula, proving companies are not reliable sources of information.

“We know what is needed, what works and the benefits to the health of babies, mothers, their families and the wider economy. Action is long overdue.”

As the letter explains, investment in protecting, promoting and supporting breastfeeding would pay for itself through reduced costs to the NHS for treating the higher incidence of illness in babies who are not breastfeed. A study from UNICEF (UK) Baby Friendly Initiative estimates savings of £40 million per year from modest increases in breastfeeding rates. There would also be economic gains arising from better health outcomes.

Globally, the authors of the Lancet study conclude that 823,000 babies could be saved in low- and middle-income countries every year, along with 20,000 mothers due to lower risk of breast cancer, and the global economy could benefit by US$300 billion.

Text of the letter, including list of signatories and quotes.

Also see Baby Milk Action blog posts examining why mothers stop breastfeeding in the UK and how the baby food industry presents obstacles to action.

Update 9 January 2016

Alison Thewliss MP asked a question of Ben Gummer MP (Parliamentary Undersecretary of State for Health Services), as given in Hansard, the official record of Parliament:

Alison Thewliss (Glasgow Central) (SNP): Ministers will be aware of The Lancet series on breastfeeding and the open letter signed today by a range of organisations in the field calling for concerted action to promote, protect and support breastfeeding. Will the Minister meet me and these organisations to discuss the proposals further?

Ben Gummer: I am aware of The Lancet review, which makes some important points. We are not doing well enough yet in England, and it is of note that progress has been made in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland that we should be able to copy in England. I know that the Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Jane Ellison), who has responsibility for public health, will want to hold such a meeting to discuss that. We have made considerable progress, but there is still a differential between rich and poor that we need to fix.

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