Only 40% of babies in the UK are breastfed at six to eight weeks of age. Whereas in Norway 70% of babies are still breastfed at six months.
The RCPCH believes the UK rate remains low due to social stigma and women getting mixed messages.
More must be done to support women to continue breastfeeding beyond the first few weeks and to continue doing it for “as long as they wish”, according to new recommendations published today to mark the beginning of World Breastfeeding Week [Tuesday 1 August].
“Regrettably the attitudes of a large part of society mean breastfeeding is not always encouraged,” said RCPCH president, Professor Neena Modi.
Professor Modi said local support for women was “patchy, not always consistent and overly dogmatic” and support for mothers breastfeeding in the workplace is not always conducive to continued breastfeeding.
“It is no wonder that for many mothers, there are too many barriers,” she added.
The RCPCH is calling for a long-term plan to change the culture of breastfeeding, involving educating children at school, families and the wider public.
The new RCPCH guidance advises:
Mothers should be encouraged and supported to breastfeed exclusively for up to six months.
Solid food should not be introduced before four months.
Solid food should be introduced from six months, ideally alongside breastfeeding to ensure the infant has adequate nutrition.
Mothers should be supported to continue breastfeeding for as long as they wish.
Further reasons for the low breastfeeding rate in the UK include difficulties in establishing breastfeeding, concerns about whether a baby is receiving enough milk and societal attitudes, which leave mums uncomfortable about breastfeeding in public or around friends and family, according to the RCPCH.
Professor Modi added: “With the right support and guidance, the vast majority of women should be able to breastfeed. But although it’s natural, it doesn’t always come naturally.
“Some mothers cannot, or choose not to, breastfeed and this also needs to be respected. What society must get better at is removing the multiple barriers which can stand in the way of breastfeeding.
“Women, their families, no less children and society at large need information that is sensible and not overly dogmatic.
“Mums need support at the right time and place, including in the workplace from their employers, and a culture that promotes and encourages breastfeeding as a natural and positive thing to do.
“There must be a coordinated and determined approach across all the society if the situation is to be improved.”
The RCPCH recommendations include:
UK Governments to ensure familiarity with breastfeeding is included as part of personal, social and health education in schools.
UK Governments to legislate for employers to support breastfeeding through parental leave, feeding breaks and facilities suitable for breastfeeding or expressing breast milk.
Local breastfeeding support to be planned and delivered to mothers in the form of evaluated, structured programmes.
The NHS to ensure the preservation of universal midwifery services.
UK Governments to commit to adequate resourcing to preserve universal health visiting services.
Public Health England to develop a national strategy to change negative societal attitudes to breastfeeding.
Welsh, Scottish and Northern Ireland Governments to review and evaluate their existing breastfeeding promotion plans.
The NHS in England and the Welsh Government to follow the lead of the Scottish Government and the NHS in Northern Ireland by ensuring all maternity services achieve and maintain UNICEF Baby Friendly Initiative accreditation; this requirement is currently met by all maternity units in Scotland and Northern Ireland.
UK Government to reinstate the UK-wide Infant Feeding Survey, which was cancelled in 2015, to ensure reliable, comparable data on breastfeeding is recorded across the four nations.
All healthcare professionals should be aware of local and national support for breastfeeding mothers.
The RCPCH’s advice and recommendations mark the start of an ongoing campaign to improve breastfeeding in the UK, which it will deliver in partnerships with other organisations.