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 current UK policy is to promote exclusive breastfeeding (feeding only breast milk) for the first six months of an infant's life. Mothers who choose to breastfeed should receive adequate support to enable them to continue breastfeeding for as long as they wish. Here we examine national and international trends over time.
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, but has remained stable since then. In 2017/18, the percentage of babies that had a first feed status recorded with a first feed of maternal or donor breast milk was 74%. Although this does not directly measure whether breastfeeding support was made available, support should increase the proportion of babies receiving breast milk for their first feed.
The percentage of infants totally or partially breastfed at six to eight weeks decreased from 47% in 2011/12 to 43% in 2017/18. There is substantial variation between parts of England, with 46% of infants breastfed at six to eight weeks in the East of England compared to 32% in the North East (data not shown).
The proportion of babies who are breastfed, at least partially, when they are six months old is relatively low in the UK compared to other European countries. In 2010, 34% of babies in the UK were breastfed at six months compared to 63% of babies in Sweden.
Further to this, only 1% of UK babies aged under six months are being breastfed exclusively, compared with 34% in Portugal (data not shown).
About this data
From 2017/18 onwards, data relating to breastfeeding status immediately after birth is captured and reported by NHS Digital via the Maternity Services Data Set (MSDS). It 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 NHS Digital through the Children and Young People's Health Services (CYPHS) Dataset. 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.
The international indicator uses data from the World Health Organisation's European Health Information Gateway. It measures the percentage of infants reaching their first birthday in the given calendar year who were breastfed, at least partially, when they were six months of age. In the UK the survey is only conducted every five years, so the data is only available for years 2000, 2005 and 2010.