British medical experts are recommending children be taught about breastfeeding in schools.
This is being done in a bid to encourage more women to breastfeed from birth and beyond.
Data published in general medical journal The Lancet shows the UK has one of the worst breastfeeding rates in the world. Less than 35% of UK babies are still breastfed at six months, compared with almost 50% in the US and 71% in Norway.
Should Breastfeeding Be Taught In Schools?
The UK is a high income country with access to quality health services and education. Even so, by the age of 12 months, only 0.5% of British babies are still breastfed.
The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) believes its new guidelines will help to encourage women to continue breastfeeding after birth.
Why Do Women Stop Breastfeeding?
There are many reasons why women don’t continue to breastfeed. On the whole, however, lack of support is often the biggest culprit.
We spend a lot of time telling women they should breastfeed, and a lot less time actually supporting them in doing so.
A small percentage of women are physically unable to breastfeed, due to medical conditions. A much greater percentage of new mothers struggle with establishing breastfeeding after birth, and find it more difficult than they expected.
Among other factors, incorrect latch and repeated bouts of thrush or mastitis can contribute to further problems. When they have little support or experience problems finding the right support, it’s no wonder women eventually decide not to continue.
Our social thinking also has a significant impact on breastfeeding rates. Almost 30% of the UK population still think women shouldn’t breastfeed in public.
A poll carried out by Public Health England’s parenting advice service, Start4Life, found one in five women believed people didn’t want to see them breastfeed in public. One in 10 women who chose not to breastfeed their babies had been influenced by their anxiety about doing so in public.
People might say breastfeeding is optimal but our culture seems to think it makes very little difference if babies aren’t breastfed. We have normalised formula as an alternative, rather than supporting human milk donations as a healthy and optimal alternative.
This attitude toward formula being ‘the next best thing’ contributes to a situation where women do not receive the right support to continue breastfeeding. Despite being aware of the short and long term benefits of breastfeeding, many women in high income countries are less likely to breastfeed long term.
Countries with the highest rates of breastfeeding after 12 months:
- Senegal (99.4%)
- The Gambia (98.7%)
- Malawi (98.3%)
- Guinea-Bissau (97.8%)
- Ethiopia (97.3%)
Countries with the lowest rates after 12 months:
- UK (0.5%)
- Saudi Arabia (2%)
- Denmark (3%)
- Greece (6%)
- Canada and France (9%)
Countries with the lowest rates of breastfeeding often cite lack of support for women after they go home with their newborns as one of the main obstacles to continuing with nursing.
Lack of support for working mothers who breastfeed is another major problem. Women find they are unable to continue to breastfeed or express breastmilk at their workplaces.
How Can Educating Children Help Breastfeeding Rates?
Most young children aren’t usually fussed by the sight of a baby at the breast. They are often curious about what the baby is doing and interested in how a mother’s body makes milk especially for the baby; it’s certainly not something that revolts them.
As children grow up, they are informed about the world by various adults – parents, teachers, adult family members, and even those in the media, like celebrities and sports stars.
The problem arises when children are influenced negatively about the importance of breastfeeding. These messages become entrenched and children grow up believing breastfeeding requires modesty or isn’t important from a health perspective.
Many children at primary school age have already internalised the message that bottle feeding is the norm. We only have to look at toys marketed at young girls: baby dolls with an accompanying bottle and other paraphernalia, which all suggest babies are never fed from the breast.
Children who are older siblings to a newborn will often mimic their mother and play at nursing their own toys. Being breastfed themselves, or seeing a mother breastfeed a baby, increases the motivation to breastfeed later in life.
Education at the school level has the potential to increase awareness of the normal and optimal way to feed babies, and the importance of how they are fed.
By introducing the topic of breastfeeding, like other aspects of human biology and development taught in schools, we’re encouraging positive ideas and building awareness.
This carries through childhood and the teen years, and into adulthood, and isn’t affected by where people comes from, their culture or education, or whether they are high or low on the socioeconomic scale.
Providing positive breastfeeding messages from an early age can help to promote a society that supports breastfeeding as the norm and values support for women to succeed at breastfeeding.