Breastfeeding not supported by society, says Swansea University professor

Just 55% of mothers in Ireland have breastfed, the lowest rate in the world

All the experts say breast is best, but why do so many mothers with newborns shun this most natural of food sources?

A researcher at Swansea University believes it is a combination of social pressure and heavy marketing by the baby formula manufacturers.

Dr Amy Brown is very exercised about the subject so much so that she wrote a book on the issue. She talked about some of the issues involved during a session at the British Festival of Science at Swansea which comes to a close later today.

Biologically, breastfeeding is the only way to go, she said. It is the perfect food for newborns and reduces the risk of intestinal and respiratory infections in infants who receive breast milk.


Only 2 per cent of women cannot breastfeed for physical reasons which suggests many more are not feeding their babies for other reasons, she said.

“What is actually going on is social. We don’t live in a society that supports breastfeeding.”

Formula manufacturers

Breastfeeding mothers make the news after being asked to leave a cafe; few places have facilities to help mothers nurse their babies; the formula manufacturers push their products on new mothers even though formulas are generally unnecessary. All of these damage the social acceptance of breastfeeding, said Dr Brown, an associate professor at Swansea’s college of human and health sciences.

“We have got to stop telling women breast is best. We need a new way of dealing with this,” Dr Brown said.

The impact of this is seen in the statistics for breastfeeding, she said. About half of women in the United Kingdom start their children on breast milk but this drops rapidly over time with a quarter of women still feeding after six months and just 0.5 per cent still breastfeeding a year later. The comparable figure in the US is 30 per cent at the end of a year.

The situation is not much better in Ireland where just 55 per cent of mothers have ever breastfed, the lowest rate of breastfeeding in the world, according to a highly detailed study published last January in the Lancet.

Exclusive food

This compares with 98 per cent in Sweden and 81 per cent in the UK. Irish women were “less likely to breastfeed compared to all other nationalities”, it found.

The World Health Organisation – a strong backer of breastfeeding – suggests breast milk should be an infant's exclusive food for at least the first six months of its life.

There is an actual cost involved when fewer women breastfeed. The British health service spends about €40 million a year in treating newborns with acute gastrointestinal and respiratory infections, she said. Risks of both these conditions increase in the absence of breastfeeding.

With conflicting messages coming from formula manufacturers and lobby groups both for and against breastfeeding, it is difficult for a woman to decide what to do. “Women are not getting the information and support they need,” Dr Brown said.

Breastfeeding Uncovered: Who really decides how we feed our babies? by Dr Brown will be published by Pinter and Martin in October.