The UK has one of the lowest rates of breastfeeding in the world. Less than 1% of babies are exclusively breastfed until six months as recommended by the World Health Organisation. But what is particularly upsetting, is that four out of five UK mothers tell us that they wanted to breastfeed longer. While 80% of mothers start out by breastfeeding, many stop in the early days or weeks, as a result of difficulties with breastfeeding, including pain, problems attaching the baby to the breast and milk production concerns.
These are not trifling worries, but cause parents - and babies - distress in those precious early days. It is no wonder they feel the need to change to bottle feeding in order for their baby to be fed. The sad thing is most of those difficulties could be prevented or resolved with skilled advice and support.
There needs to be a solution to this problem, which is why we decided to have launch iFeed – a website to provide new and expectant parents with support and information around infant feeding and bonding. Myself and fellow researchers at Coventry University felt there was a gap in the infant feeding support offered to parents. We wanted to fill that hole.
Support for breastfeeding in the UK has been patchy and inconsistent for a long time. There are some excellent, compassionate, and well-trained professionals, but they have limited time to provide the level of care that women need for breastfeeding. There are also professionals who have received little recent training in breastfeeding support, or have had their own breastfeeding difficulties. This results in inconsistent advice being given to parents, which is one of the most frequent complaints parents have about infant feeding support.
There is also a risk that well-intentioned guidelines followed by health professionals restricting the promotion of formula milk are misinterpreted. Parents have told me they felt under great pressure to breastfeed and were afraid to ask for support to bottle feed. This can mean parents who choose or need to give bottles to their babies miss out on help and advice to make them up safely. Feeling unsupported, those parents may also turn away from health professional advice on other matters, such as feeding in response to baby’s cues rather than on a schedule (which may be important in preventing obesity) and weaning. Parents who wanted to breastfeed may need emotional support to help them come to terms with a move to bottles, as many feel guilty or upset about stopping breastfeeding.
Evidence has told us that proactive, face-to-face support is the best approach. However, cuts in the public health budget mean that resources to provide this are tighter than ever. Digital options such as apps and websites, as well as being cost-effective, have their own advantages. They have the potential to offer consistent, up-to-date and high-quality information. Digital tools are also available 24/7, so when parents have a burning question at 3am there is something reliable to check.
Ifeed has been developed to be a useful resource for all parents. Expectant parents will find content to help them think about their feeding options and come to their own informed decision. New parents will find support for the most common breastfeeding difficulties, including lots of content to boost confidence in breastfeeding in public. If parents choose or need to give a bottle there is guidance on making up a bottle safely and maximising opportunities to bond with their baby. We also know that dads and partners are really important too, so there is a section of the site devoted to them. This is all wrapped up in the universal message of supporting parents to build a strong relationship with their baby. After all, that, is the most important thing.
The ifeed website is launched today, 1 August, and can be found at www.ifeedproject.co.uk