A group of UK scientists from Cardiff University have found that many UK mothers are not getting access to peer support for breastfeeding. They found that peer support was available in 56% of areas however that the coverage across an area could be variable. World Health Organisation guidelines recommend that babies should be breastfed exclusively for the first 6 months of their life, and that the practice should then be continued alongside other food until children are at least 2. They state that peer support should be implemented to help the initiation and continuation of breastfeeding and UK guidelines are based on this guidance. The scientists aimed to improve information because there seemed to be little information about breastfeeding support in the UK and when, how and where it took place. The results of the survey were published in Maternal & Child Nutrition.
The scientists wrote to all UK infant feeding co-ordinators (696 in total), who covered 177 NHS organisations and who were part of the National Infant Feeding Networks which are based in the UK. They only received answers from 19.5% of individuals, but 102 organisations also answered. The researchers also searched NHS websites to ascertain the access of peer support provision. Peer supporters are normally women who come from a similar ethnic and socio-economic background as the person they are helping. They are normally unpaid volunteers, who have undertaken some training, and have usually breastfed their babies themselves.
The results the scientists received, suggested that the WHO guidelines are not being followed as not all women have access to peer support when trying to start breastfeeding their newborn. The results of the survey suggested that breastfeeding peer support was only available in 56% of NHS regions. This included breastfeeding support groups set up by charities such as the National Childbirth Trust and La Leche, which were available in 89% of NHS regions. The authors noted that provision was particularly bad in north east London and Yorkshire, although they also suggested that there may be more informal provision in the areas.
Although the groups suggested that they aimed to particularly meet the needs of poorer mothers, they were not able to meet that need. 25% of people who replied said that breastfeeding peer support was not accessed by mothers of lower socio-economic status, even though they were trying to attract them. Some groups suggested that they were in need of funding to improve their peer support service, but other NHS areas had received significant recent investment, however this was not necessarily matched to demand.
The authors felt that the lack of peer support for breastfeeding in some areas do not tell the whole story. They also felt that society attitudes towards women breastfeeding in public may also be contributing to low UK rates of breastfeeding. They acknowledged that many women may be made to feel uncomfortable if feeding their newborn in public. They suggested that attitudes may need to change in order to begin to raise the rates. They also suggested that the UK needed a more robust collection of information was required in order to inform guidance and the provision of the services.
Grant, A., et al., Availability of breastfeeding peer support in the United Kingdom: a cross-sectional study, July 2017, Maternal & Child Nutrition