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.
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.
In 2017/18, NHS Digital began publishing data on the percentage of babies that had a first feed status recorded with a first feed of maternal or donor breast milk. In 2019/20, the percentage of babies that had a first feed of maternal or donor breast milk decreased slightly to 72%. 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. Note that the dataset changed to a new version in 2019/20, and data quality and coverage reduced.
Between 2009/10 and 2018/19, the percentage of infants totally or partially breastfed at six to eight weeks fluctuated at around 45%. There is substantial variation between parts of England, with 46% of infants breastfed at six to eight weeks in the East Midlands in 2019/20 compared to 34% in the North East (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). In April 2019, the MSDS changed to a new version (MSDSv2). Data quality and coverage reduced from levels seen in previous publications. 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 Public Health England. 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.