Shereen Fisher, BfN’s CEO, responds to Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock’s vision for prevention released yesterday, and how it relates to investment in breastfeeding support.
The future of health in the UK is dependent on us all getting really serious about prevention. Currently the NHS spends £1 in every £5 on health problems that are a direct result of our lifestyle such as obesity and poor diet. We are told that not only will prevention help reduce the strain on the NHS but it will also improve all our health.
Getting serious about prevention must include getting serious about community level investment to enable all mothers who choose to breastfeed to do so, given the substantial evidence that links breastfeeding with improved health.
The Lancet series on breastfeeding offers the most comprehensive review of all the evidence on breastfeeding to date and highlights breastfeeding’s role in the UK prevention agenda.
The authors state: “…how important breastfeeding is for all women and children, irrespective of where they live … Appropriate breastfeeding practices prevent child morbidity due to diarrhoea, respiratory infections, and otitis media [ear infections]. Where infectious diseases are common causes of death, breastfeeding provides major protection, but even in high-income populations it lowers mortality from causes such as necrotising enterocolitis and sudden infant death syndrome. It also helps nursing women by preventing breast cancer. Additionally, our review suggests likely effects on overweight and diabetes in breastfed children, and on ovarian cancers and diabetes [Type 2] in mothers.”
Importantly UK women and babies offer policy and health leaders an attractive opportunity. While breastfeeding rates in the UK are the lowest in the world the rates of initiation – women starting to breastfeed – have been increasing for the last 20 years (81%).
Scotland’s infant feeding statistics (November 2018) show signs of positive change – no happy accident but consequence of national leadership, strategic planning, partnership and sustained investment.
Women’s intention to breastfeed offers an important opportunity for health and wellbeing both for babies (next generation) and women themselves. However, individual will has to be met with support that effectively improves a mother’s breastfeeding experience and helps sustain her choice to breastfeed. Peer support can make a big difference here especially as over time it offers the chance for areas to recreate a culture where breastfeeding is familiar. We also know that choice isn’t made in a vacuum but is heavily influenced by family members, hospital care, health care professional advice and societal views. Patient empowerment is an important theme in the vision of healthcare for the future yet women feel constantly disempowered in their efforts to breastfeed through the lack of support available to them.
With the NHS celebrating a landmark anniversary alongside £20 billion a year in extra cash now announced NHS leaders will be putting forward a 10-year plan that will make crucial decisions about how the service will spend the money.
In the planning no doubt demands will be high, as cancer survival rates, mental health support, health inequalities and an aging population all vie for consideration, how should we use the government’s cash boost to tackle the priorities that matter most to us?
In the debate let’s remember the substantial benefits to health in breastfeeding for mother and baby as well as the sheer economic and environmental sense that breastfeeding makes.
In 2012 UNICEF UK reported that just a moderate increase in breastfeeding rates could save the NHS millions. In 2016 the Lancet series calculated that the overall savings would actually be in the order of billions, not millions, of pounds. Moreover, the measures required to support breastfeeding are relatively inexpensive and soon pay for themselves. Keith Hansen of the World Bank said …
“In sheer, raw bottom-line economic terms, breastfeeding may be the single best investment a country can make.”
The potential savings into the billions are important here because we all know that the cash boost being offered by government to the NHS and social care isn’t going to be enough. While the additional £20 billion a year (in five years) has already been welcomed, the Kings Fund has pointed out, that this does not come close to the amount required to improve services after years of underfunding. On social care, the budget announcements will not be able to undo the cuts in services and underfunding of local government that has already occurred. These cuts that have caused losses to breastfeeding support services, many of which are located in areas of low breastfeeding rates and run by volunteers and supported by charities.
Knowing how the money works to support breastfeeding is essential and it is currently hard to know this in England. What we do know is that funding for community-led breastfeeding peer support has been cut because it sits within a shrinking public health budget devolved to local authorities. Despite excellent evidence-based commissioning guidance on infant feeding for local authorities breastfeeding support services in communities is entirely optional.
This has led to mothers who choose to breastfeed being unable to access local services and leaves them failed and let down. This is just too precarious a situation for a public health priority as important as breastfeeding that if better funded and supported could serve us well in the prevention of infant mortality, obesity, type 2 diabetes, ovarian and breast cancer ….
If we are going to get serious about prevention in health then there needs to be a clear strategy and leadership for breastfeeding. Government’s role is key here in taking responsibility for building an environment that promotes, protects and supports breastfeeding, not just for the next year but for the next 20 years.
This should include at a minimum the following very important steps many of which are recommended by National Institute for Clinical Excellence:
- Appoint a national multidisciplinary infant feeding board or committee with strong leadership to ensure evidence on infant feeding is understood and enshrined in policy
- Ensure that Baby Friendly accreditation becomes a minimum requirement for all maternity settings (achieved in Scotland and Northern Ireland) (NICE recommended)
- Ensure that all mothers regardless of where they live, receive skilled evidence-based breastfeeding support, making this provision a mandatory responsibility by protecting the public health budget that protects health visiting and breastfeeding peer support workers (NICE recommended)
- Protect all families from aggressive marketing of formula companies by enacting into UK law the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes and subsequent relevant resolutions (NICE recommended).
- Require employers to provide breaks to breastfeeding mothers to allow them to breastfeed or express milk at work.
With careful, long term thinking and action the prevention agenda offers great focus to help us plan the health and wellbeing of the UK for the future. The health of women and babies will be stronger still for joined-up planning and provision of quality breastfeeding support. Let us not forget all our responsibilities in supporting breastfeeding and ensuring that its role in the prevention agenda is fully acknowledged.
 Anita Charlesworth, Chief Economist, The Health Foundation interviewed for Healthy Visions BBC Podcast / https://www.health.org.uk/Running-to-stand-still-why-20-5bn-is-a-lot-but-not-enough
 Breastfeeding in the 21st century: epidemiology, mechanisms, and lifelong effect (30 January 2016), Victora, CG et al, The Lancet Volume 387, Issue 10017, 475-490 https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(15)01024-7/fulltext
 Infant Feeding Survey 2010 (2012), Fiona McAndrew et al, Health and Social Care Information Centre https://digital.nhs.uk/data-and-information/publications/statistical/infant-feeding-survey/infant-feeding-survey-uk-2010
 Scottish Government Infant Feeding Statistics 2017/18 http://www.isdscotland.org/Health-Topics/Child-Health/Publications/index.asp#2275
 Preventing disease and saving resources: the potential contribution of increasing breastfeeding rates in the UK (October 2012), Renfrew, M et al, Unicef UK https://www.unicef.org.uk/babyfriendly/about/preventing-disease-and-saving-resources/
 Why invest, and what it will take to improve breastfeeding practices/ (30 January 2016), Nigel C Rollins et al, The Lancet Volume 387, No. 10017, 491-504 https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(15)01044-2/fulltext
 The Power of Nutrition and the Power of Breastfeeding (2015), Keith Hansen, Breastfeeding Medicine, Volume 10, Number 8
 The Kings Fund, NHS Funding: What we know, what we don’t know and what comes next https://www.kingsfund.org.uk/blog/2018/06/nhs-funding-what-we-know