NHS could save £40m per year through rise in breastfeeding rates, says professor

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Increasing the UK's lowly breastfeeding rates could save the NHS £40 million a year, a leading public health academic has claimed.

According to recent figures, Britain has the lowest breastfeeding rates in the world.

Swansea University professor Amy Brown says a growing number of British parents are choosing to feed their children on formula milk - despite increased risks of gastroenteritis and respiratory illnesses.

The mother-of-three, who will address the British Science Festival on the issue on Thursday, insists more funding and better support for new mums is needed if attitudes are to change.

Dr Brown said: "Breastfeeding should be normal behaviour.

"However, in this country it sparks high levels of debate in the press and online - much of which can be highly critical of breastfeeding or examples of when a mother has experienced a problem when feeding her child this way.

"Despite the promotion that 'breast is best', we do not follow it up with actions to support new mothers. More people here believe that smacking is acceptable than believe that breastfeeding in public is okay.

"If we could raise breastfeeding rates by just two-thirds, we could save the NHS £40 million a year as excess appointments for babies fed on formula milk, who are more prone to illness, would no longer be needed."

Earlier this year, figures published in The Lancet medical journal revealed that only one in every 200 British children - just 0.5% - is breastfed until the age of 12 months.

Dr Brown said the figures were depressing given a 98% rate in Scandinavian countries and 27% rate in the US - where American mums can only get four weeks maternity leave before having to return to work.

She added: "Is the reason for the low figures because of physical problems? No. There are only 2% of women in the UK who are unable to breastfeed because of a physical problem or because of medication that they are on.

"The situation has arisen because of society creating huge problems."

As well as "self-styled experts" promoting products which can damage breastfeeding, Dr Brown argues that formula companies also use "clever tactics" in targeting mothers.

She said: "Alongside this, new mothers face significant social pressure to 'get their lives back' quickly after having a baby - by socialising, getting back in their jeans and keeping their partner happy - which can make breastfeeding so overwhelming.

"Despite more than 90% of mothers in the UK wanting to breastfeed, more than half have had some formula by the end of their first week. Overall, the UK has the lowest breastfeeding rates in the world.

"Until we challenge attitudes and take better care of our new mothers and truly support them, we will not see rates rise."

Dr Brown will examine the issue further in her upcoming book Breastfeeding Uncovered, which will be published in October.

The British Science Festival, which is taking place in Swansea, runs until September 9.