To breastfeed or not to breastfeed? With last week’s Unicef UK report ‘Preventing Disease and Saving Resources’, the case in favour of mothers breast feeding babies until they are at least 6 months old seems to be stacking up and there’s a lot of international, national and local data on the subject.
International data? UNICEF data shows that UK breastfeeding rates are increasing but remain among the lowest in Europe. 81% of British babies are breastfed when they are first born, but the figure for 1-week old babies drops considerably and by 6-8 weeks, just under 50% of babies are still breastfed and by 6 months the figure is less than 2 % (although more are still receiving breast milk).
National data? the Department of Health (DoH)s’ Infant Feeding survey is run every 5 years.
Local data? There is a local case study in the UNICEF report. The DoH analyses local data too. Since 2008/09, each primary care trust has been required to submit quarterly data on the prevalence of breastfeeding at 6-8 weeks.
And now, there are cited data projecting health benefits (for example that 10,000 fewer young children a year would require hospital treatment), and data projecting at least £ 31 m savings for the NHS (due to lower incidences of some cancers in women who have breastfed and in illness in babies breastfed for longer).
The rate of breastfeeding is a sensitive issue with complex societal, family, health (and now economic) aspects. But whilst statistical findings may build a body of evidence, how to feed their children remains a mother’s choice. The statistical findings of this report and other sources of data should not be viewed as advocacy or weapons with which to target mothers who do not breast feed but as knowledge to support well-informed debate.
An Independent article, ’How women feed babies isn’t just about statistics’ puts this case clearly. However, references in the same article, to “mind-boggling statistics” and to those statistics leaving mothers “feeling they have put their child’s health at risk” are less helpful. So, let’s not make statistics the bogey man in this debate. Statistics are the information in numbers. More enlightening than ‘boggling’ and they serve an important purpose in public discourse and the development of policy.