Breastfeeding rates in the UK are some of the lowest, globally, and the challenges posed to new parents have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Many support groups for those breastfeeding disappeared overnight, and a lack of face-to-face support from both peer, charity, and professional supports developed. However, data published by the Welsh government has shown breastfeeding rates improved during 2020, increasing by up to three per cent.
What has changed during the pandemic?
Many new parents had the opportunity to spend more time at home, and with fewer visitors. This decrease in external pressures, and the closer physical bond facilitated between parent and child, has been attributed to the increases in breastfeeding rates. Online support has played an important role, with social media groups, What’s App groups and virtual baby bistro events providing a lifeline to those with breastfeeding support needs.
Complacency is not an option
Despite the improvement in rates, breastfeeding during a pandemic has posed a challenge for many, struggling to access support; stories that have been repeatedly highlighted, particularly by the #butnotmaternity campaign. The detailed statistics collected quarterly in Wales, stratifying breastfeeding rates by neonatal age, region and type of milk, can support policymakers and professionals to identify areas in need of additional input, supporting individualised and focussed interventions. The data could go further, however, considering the impact of ethnicity and access to antenatal care, two key disparities highlighted by recent MBRRACE reports and care provision during the pandemic. These analyses would support a tangible improvement in care, and overtly supporting the public health agenda.
Can we follow the data?
Infant feeding data in the UK is recorded by maternity and health visiting services at birth, 10 days, six weeks and three, six and twelve months, however, this uniform approach to data collection is not reflected in the data available. Scottish data reflected a similar increase in rates, however, this growth was attributed to an increase in mix feeding over exclusive breastfeeding rates, reflecting the need for a localised approach to support. This approach to breastfeeding support is essential to account for regional variation, however, the data published for Northern Ireland and England does not reproduce the same detailed approach. Comparing the data between the four UK nations has highlighted a disparity in the accessibility of infant feeding data. Breastfeeding is indicated under the Public Health Outcomes Framework, and the benefits are well evidenced. Furthermore, as midwives and other birth professionals are bound to provide evidence-based care. Without clear, substantial, and accessible data, reflection and learning to support the improvement of services and, ultimately, breastfeeding rates, is hindered.
2nd Year Student Midwife
Co-editor, Student Midwife Journal
Student Reviewer, Midwifery Hour