Thursday, October 18, 2012

Interested in saving money and tackling inequality? Then support breastfeeding

Liberal Democrat ministers are talking a lot about the need to tackle the deficit - ie spend less money - and also to tackle inequality. That's why Nick Clegg has been so keen on talking about giving extra money to help disadvantaged kids at school.

What if there were a way to do both and ensure a healthier population for the future?

Well, there is.

And I've been banging on about it for a very long time.

It's about making sure more women breastfeed their babies.

Now, before you start going on about freedom of choice, 4 in 5 mums who give up before their babies are 6 weeks old don't want to. Lack of proper support means that they can't overcome problems. They  don't really have freedom of choice. We need to give it to them.

UNICEF UK has today published a very good report which suggests that not only could £40 million a year be saved from NHS bills by supporting breastfeeding, but increasing breastfeeding can help reduce inequalities, too. We've known this for some time as Professor Stewart Forsyth's Dundee University research established that:
Breast fed children from lower socio-economic groups had better outcomes than formula fed children from more affluent families.
That's actually worth repeating:
Breast fed children from lower socio-economic groups had better outcomes than formula fed children from more affluent families.
 So, if we help mothers from poorer backgrounds to breastfeed, it'll make their babies healthier and reduce inequality?

Why the hell aren't we?

I spent a few years as a trained breastfeeding counsellor. I was often staggered to find that midwives and health visitors simply didn't know things I considered basic. Things like pressing on a newborn's palm gently can help them open their mouths so they can latch on properly. Things like recognising when a baby is latched on and feeding properly. There are breastfeeding solutions for virtually every breastfeeding problem, but there aren't enough people out there with the knowledge and the time to help mums through it.

This business of taking your baby home from hospital 6 hours after giving birth is good in some ways, but detrimental in others. Being around other breastfeeding women is so effective. In the olden days women would sit in the nursery feeding their babies so mums having problems could see first hand how others got their babies to latch on. Accessible breastfeeding drop in clinics in informal surroundings with a mix of trained support and other mums would really help. So would ante-natal breastfeeding classes. You probably have never thought that filling a pair of tights with a bag of rice and a small bag of sugar could help in that regard, but believe me, it does. So does filling a nappy with a few tablespoons of water so that people get the idea of how heavy a wet nappy should feel if the baby is getting enough milk. Simple things like that can be really helpful.

The UNICEF report authors say that their estimates on the money that could be saved by increasing breastfeeding rates is conservative. They also say, and cite examples, of where measures designed to increase breastfeeding rates, produce results and savings very quickly.

So, Nick Clegg, forget the novel tonight. Read this report before you go to sleep and get to work championing breastfeeding in the same way that you have parental leave and mental health. This has the potential to change a lot of lives for the better, to make our mothers and children healthier, to reduce inequality and all the while save us money.

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