Support breastfeeding for a healthier planet

Janet Calvert, PHA Health Improvement

Picture of a woman breastfeeding

The theme of World Breastfeeding Week 2020 is “Support breastfeeding for a healthier planet”. In line with this theme, the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF) are calling on governments to protect and promote women’s access to skilled breastfeeding counselling, a critical component of breastfeeding support.

Why breastfeeding matters

The importance of breastfeeding to maternal and child health is well recognised.  Substantial evidence from research shows significant reductions in conditions such as obesity, diabetes, chest and ear infections, gastro-enteritis, asthma and reduced morbidity from sudden unexplained death in infants and necrotising enterocolitis. Women who breastfeed reduce their risk of breast cancer, ovarian cancer, endometriosis and type 2 diabetes. The most health benefits are afforded if babies are exclusively breastfed until around six months and continue breastfeeding into the second year of life and beyond.  WHO Guidance, issued during the COVID-19 response following research in this area, reports that transmission of the COVID-19 virus through breastmilk and breastfeeding has not been detected. All expectant and new mothers should continue to receive effective information and support to be able to start and continue with breastfeeding. While breastfeeding is a natural process, it is not always easy and many mothers need ongoing support from their partners, families, voluntary supporters and health professionals in order to get breastfeeding Off to a Good Start. 

Breastfeeding rates in Northern Ireland

The PHA Health Intelligence Briefing for Breastfeeding in Northern Ireland (February 2020) reports on breastfeeding trends. The most recent figures suggest modest increases in the number of women breastfeeding here, 2018 data from the Northern Ireland Maternity System (NIMATS) shows that breastfeeding was attempted for around 6 out of ten births (61.2%) in Northern Ireland, increasing from 54.1% in 2012. However, prevalence figures show that many women stop breastfeeding after those first few weeks. Figures from the Child Health System in 2017 show a drop in the number of infants receiving any breast milk from 47.0% on discharge from hospital, to 37.0% after the first few days at home. By 6 weeks just 29.8% of babies receive any breast milk, 24.2% at 3 months and just 17.1% by 6 months of age, and 10.5% at 12 months. Comparisons with UK and the Republic of Ireland suggest that breastfeeding rates in Northern Ireland are among the lowest in the World. 

Improving outcomes

In support of the Northern Ireland Breastfeeding Strategy 'Breastfeeding A Great Start'  the PHA supports a range of projects. These include: achieving and sustaining UNICEF UK Baby Friendly Initiative standards in maternity and community settings; training of health professionals; development of breastfeeding posts within Trusts;  mother to mother peer support; La Leche League and NCT voluntary breastfeeding support; Tiny Life Breastpump Loan services and Breastival. The response to COVID-19 has required innovative changes to be made in how breastfeeding support is made available from both health professionals and the community and voluntary sector.  

Information and support for mothers

Women living in the most economically deprived areas of Northern Ireland and young mothers are much less likely to decide to breastfeed and are at least half as likely to breastfeed as older mothers and those from the least deprived areas. For these mums, support from Sure Start projects is important, and the opportunity to meet other breastfeeding women from their own area can make a big difference.

During the COVID-19 response the majority of the 98 Breastfeeding Support Groups in Northern Ireland have stopped meeting in person. However, a new way of getting support online is growing, and since COVID-19 we now have 24 new Virtual Breastfeeding Support Groups  established throughout Northern Ireland. The majority of these new Virtual Breastfeeding Support Groups are facilitated by Sure Starts.   

Breastfeeding mothers and babies need the support of everyone, including partners, families, friends, communities and workplaces. We all need to work together to ensure the vision for our Breastfeeding Strategy for Northern Ireland is realised and that “Breastfeeding is the social and biological norm, and mothers will be supported to give their babies a good start in life.”

For more information on breastfeeding, including support, visit

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