The importance of breastfeeding to reducing health inequalities and improving maternal and child health is well recognised. The future for breastfeeding in Northern Ireland was firmly under the spotlight today at a seminar hosted by the Public Health Agency, (PHA), and Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, (DHSSPS), in Lagan Valley Island. Over 100 breastfeeding support volunteers and health professionals attended the seminar to reflect on findings and recommendations from the recent Breastfeeding Strategy review to see what needs to be done to increase the number of mothers breastfeeding here.
In the last twenty years our breastfeeding rates show an upward trend, from 36% in 1990 to 63% in 2005 of mothers’ breastfeeding at birth However we still have one of the lowest breastfeeding rates in the UK. Those least likely to breastfeed include young mothers and those on low incomes. New figures for 2009 looking at the number of women going home from hospital breastfeeding, show that the lowest breastfeeding rates are seen in some of our most deprived areas with rates as low as 11% in parts of North and West Belfast compared to 78% in parts of South Belfast.
Guest speaker at the seminar, Professor Mary Renfrew, University of York, said: “Breastfeeding is probably the single most effective intervention to promote child health, development and wellbeing in the short, medium and long term, and it also has a significant positive impact on women’s health. The majority of women now start to breastfeed, but most stop in the first few weeks, before they want to. My paper examines the factors that underlie this problem, including socio-cultural factors and health professional education and training. Using evidence derived from recent research, a pathway to enable women to breastfeed will be proposed.”
The benefits of breastfeeding to mother and baby are well documented. In particular, it helps to create a very close bond between a mother and her child. Health benefits include a reduced risk of ear, chest, kidney and stomach infections and less risk of childhood diabetes and obesity. Breastfeeding can also significantly reduce the risk of children being admitted to hospital for gastroenteritis and chest infections. The health benefits for mothers who choose to breastfeed include a reduced risk of developing illnesses such as breast cancer, ovarian cancer and osteoporosis. The longer a baby is breastfed the more he or she will benefit, but any breastfeeding, even for a short time, is beneficial for both mother and baby. The World Health Organization recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months with continued breastfeeding up to 2 years of age or beyond.
During the conference, Dr Liz Mitchell, Deputy Chief Medical Officer, Department of Health Social Services and Public Safety, said: "This event celebrates the significant progress that has been made to promote and support breastfeeding in Northern Ireland. There are many examples of good practice and initiatives in Northern Ireland, as highlighted in the review of the Breastfeeding Strategy completed earlier this year, which have contributed to the rise in breastfeeding rates. We now wish to build on this success and take account of such effective interventions in further developing our policy on breastfeeding.”
Janet Calvert, Regional Breastfeeding Coordinator, PHA concluded: “Breastfeeding gives all mothers the opportunity to give their child the best start in life and by improving health outcomes, has the potential to reduce health inequalities significantly. Today’s event has provided the opportunity for those involved in breastfeeding promotion and support to take stock, consider the review recommendations and contribute to identifying priorities for the way ahead to positively shape the future of breastfeeding in Northern Ireland.”
The Breastfeeding Strategy for Northern Ireland was published in 1999 and has been a vital and effective framework for the promotion and support of breastfeeding. The seminar was attended by breastfeeding groups, breastfeeding coordinators, midwives, health visitors, sure start staff, peer supporters, voluntary breastfeeding supporters, breastfeeding counselors, maternity service users and health professionals.
PHA Press Office on 028 9031 1611.
Notes to the editor
More on breastfeeding can be found by visiting www.breastfedbabies.org