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Less than half of Northern Ireland babies are breastfed in hospital

More than 42,000 babies have left Northern Ireland’s hospitals since April 2012 without having attempted breastfeeding, Detail Data can reveal.

That figure equates to just under half of all newborns, according to an analysis of four years of Public Health Agency (PHA) data on the feeding status of infants.

And despite the Department of Health having adopted the World Health Organisation’s recommendation that a baby should exclusively breastfeed until six months – between April 2012 and March 2016, 93% of babies didn’t.

The PHA defines totally breastfeeding as exclusively receiving breast milk (including expressed) but not receiving formula milk or other liquids. In a bid to increase awareness of the importance of breastfeeding and improve its social acceptability, PHA is due to launch a major breastfeeding public awareness campaign this August.

Janet Calvert, PHA’s regional breastfeeding co-ordinator, told Detail Data: “It’s not just about sorting out the health service, although that is a key part of it. It’s creating supportive environments for breastfeeding across communities and within families, and shifting any bias, negative attitudes and misconceptions about breastfeeding. In Northern Ireland we have to move further along the journey of really valuing breastfeeding.”

Northern Ireland has the lowest breastfeeding rate in the UK and research by The Lancet also indicates the UK’s breastfeeding rates are among the lowest in the world. “We are living in a bottle feeding culture. Most of us have grown up seeing babies bottle fed,” explained Mrs Calvert. “The way we feed babies has been historical and we need to change history now. We need to get more women in their families successfully breastfeeding so that they will influence decisions in the next generation.”

Detail Data examined the feeding status of 97,737 babies born between April 1, 2012 and March 31, 2016.

The analysis found:

  • Breastfeeding was attempted prior to discharge from hospital with 56% of all babies.
  • 42,876 babies left hospital without having tried breastfeeding.
  • 24% of babies from the most deprived backgrounds were breastfeeding when leaving hospital compared to 51% from the least deprived.
  • 44% of babies born to mothers aged 35 to 39 years were breastfeeding at discharge compared to 17% of babies born to mothers under 20 years.

There can be many reasons why a mother chooses not to or can’t breastfeed including problems with attachment, supply, a lack of support and medical issues.

The PHA routinely reports breastfeeding figures by adding together the number of babies totally and partially breastfeeding. In 2014/15 those figures were 45% at discharge, 13% at six months and 7% at 12 months. However, as WHO recommends exclusive breastfeeding for six months – and the department has adopted that advice – Detail Data focused on those statistics.

The findings emerged from PHA data secured by Detail Data through a Freedom of Information request. The figures were sourced from the Northern Ireland Child Health System and the Northern Ireland Maternity System. It refers only to live births and Northern Ireland residents - 73 births recorded were not hospital births.

Detail Data visited a breastfeeding support group in Larne to hear firsthand from mothers about their breastfeeding journey.

The women had experience of exclusively breastfeeding, combining breastfeeding with bottle feeding and bottle feeding. Issues they had encountered included postpartum depression, mastitis, babies with tongue tie, low birth weight, hip dysplasia, problems getting their babies to latch, milk supply, lack of confidence and doubt.

Health visitor Helen Sherry, who works for Larne Parental Support Project, runs the breastfeeding peer support group in conjunction with Action for Children. She explained: “The support group offers them a friendly environment where they can come and breastfeed in comfort. We try to nurture the mothers so they in turn can look after the babies that they are feeding. They chat to me and then more importantly the other mothers and you just see them going out of that group as different people.”

According to mothers we interviewed the group has been crucial to their breastfeeding success.

Jillian McFaul, who bottle fed her first child and is breastfeeding her second, said: “This group has been a lifeline to keep me going.”

Laura McAllister, who has been breastfeeding her son for 15 months, commented: “I came in that first day and it was just such a relief to be reassured I was doing things right because I had been told I had to give formula, I had doubted myself.”

To read the full story, by Lindsay Fergus, click here.

To access the data that supports the story click here.