To breastfeed or not to breastfeed? That is the question.
According to new research, breastfeeding for longer can improve the health of a mother and her child, and could also save the NHS more than £40m a year.
The report said that savings would come from reducing common childhood illnesses and also cutting the risk of women developing breast cancer over their lifetime, which is said to be linked to low rates of breastfeeding.
Led by researchers at Brunel University, the study suggested that £11m could be saved by cutting the occurrence of infections in babies if women who exclusively breastfed for one week were to keep going for four months.
And doubling the number of mothers who breastfeed for between seven and 18 months would save £31m due to the lower estimated number of those women developing breast cancer.
The report, published online in Archive of Disease in Childhood, said: "This is very important because national statistics indicate that 80% of women who stop breastfeeding in the early weeks would have liked to have breastfed for longer.
"Increasing the current breastfeeding rates is likely to generate substantial cost savings to the NHS in the UK; the actual amounts saved will depend on the extent of the increase and effectiveness of interventions."
While the cost of these interventions must be considered, the potential savings indicate that substantial further investment has a strong economic case.
"Our study should reassure policymakers, service planners and commissioners that a rapid return on investment is realistic and feasible, supported by cost savings that can be realised in the first year of infants' lives."
The childhood diseases that researchers suggested could be reduced include gastrointestinal and lower respiratory tract infections; ear infections in infants and the potentially lethal gut disorder necrotising enterocolitis in babies.
They calculated that treating those diseases cost the NHS £89m a year and lifetime costs of treating mothers with breast cancer was around £960m based on 2010 figures, before working out how much could be saved.
Story continues below...
But the report said cost-savings hinged not on encouraging more women to breastfeed but simply getting those already doing so to maintain it for longer. Rates of breastfeeding in the UK have increased to 81% in 2010.
Health minister Dr Dan Poulter told BBC News: "The health and economic benefits of breast feeding are clear and it is absolutely crucial that new mothers get support with breastfeeding."Suggest a correction