Breastfeeding has short- and long-term health benefits for both mother and child. It is estimated that if all UK infants were exclusively breastfed, the number hospitalised with diarrhoea would be halved, and the number hospitalised with a respiratory infection would drop by a quarter. Mothers who do not breastfeed have an increased risk of breast and ovarian cancers and may find it harder to return to their pre-pregnancy weight.
The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health supports the practice of breastfeeding and encourages exclusive breastfeeding (feeding only breast milk) for the first six months of an infant's life. Mothers who choose to breastfeed should receive support to enable them to continue breastfeeding for as long as they wish.
Breastfeeding of infants
The proportion of new mothers initiating breastfeeding (within the first 48 hours of birth) increased from 66% in 2005/06 to 74% in 2010/11, remaining stable until 2016/17.
NHS England began publishing data in 2017/18 on the percentage of babies that had a first feed status recorded with a first feed of maternal or donor breast milk. In 2017/18, 74% of babies had a first feed of maternal or donor breast milk. This decreased to 72% in 2019/20 and remained the same until 2023/24 (provisional data covering April to June 2023).
Between 2009/10 and 2018/19, the percentage of infants totally or partially breastfed at six to eight weeks fluctuated at around 45%, before increasing to 49% in 2022/23. For more information see our ‘About this data’ section.
About this data
Since 2017/18, data relating to breastfeeding status immediately after birth has been captured and reported by NHS England via the Maternity Services Data Set (MSDS). In April 2019, the MSDS changed to a new version (MSDSv2). Data quality and coverage reduced from levels seen in previous publications. For more information, see NHS England’s data quality statement.
NHS England publishes the following measures in its monthly CSV Data file:
- The number of babies whose first feed is either maternal or donor breast milk
- The number of babes whose first feed is not breast milk
- The number of babies who are not recorded as having a first feed
We calculate the ‘% first feed maternal or donor breast milk’ by dividing the first measure by the sum of measures 1 and 2.
Breastfeeding status immediately after birth was previously reported by NHS England, where the following definitions applied:
- The mother is defined as having initiated breastfeeding if, within the first 48 hours of birth, either she puts the baby to the breast, or the baby is given any of the mother’s breast milk.
- The number of maternities is defined as the number of women who give birth to one or more live or stillborn babies of at least 24 weeks’ gestation, where the baby is delivered by either a midwife or a doctor and the place of delivery is either at home or in an NHS hospital or birthing centre (including GP units).
The six- to eight-week breastfeeding data is now published by the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities. Definitions for this indicator are as follows:
- Totally breastfed is defined as infants who are exclusively receiving breast milk (this may be expressed breast milk) at six to eight weeks of age – that is, they are not receiving formula milk, any other liquids or food.
- Partially breastfed is defined as infants who are currently receiving breast milk (this may be expressed breast milk) at six to eight weeks of age and who are also receiving formula milk or any other liquids or food.
- Not at all breastfed is defined as infants who are not receiving any breast milk at six to eight weeks of age.
In the 2021/22 Office for Health Improvement and Disparities breastfeeding rate report, breastfeeding prevalence at a regional level was only published for the North East, East Midlands, and East of England. All other areas failed to meet the required data validation. Additionally, data from 2023/24 is incomplete as it only spans April to June 2023.