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Cuts to maternity services impact on breastfeeding continuation

Spending cuts in maternity services have a direct impact on the number of mothers that continue breastfeeding, a new study has found.

The research by data analysts Ssentif, which looked at data from every PCT in England, found huge regional variation in breastfeeding drop-off rates. Researchers reported a link to reduced spending on maternity services and cuts to midwife and health visitor numbers.

Nationally, 72% of women in England begin breastfeeding, but more than a third stop after six to eight weeks. But the study found the drop-off rate was significantly higher in PCTs that cut spending on maternity services, with regional differences in drop-off rates ranging from 7% to 65%.

New mothers in Sandwell PCT in the West Midlands were the most likely to stop breastfeeding after six to eight weeks, with a drop-off rate of 65% in 2010/11, up from 46% the previous year. Sandwell also had an initiation rate of just 56% – well below the national average. During the same year, the trust reduced spending on maternity services by almost 20%.

On the other end of the spectrum, NHS Westminster – which increased spending on maternity services by 158% in 2010/11 – reported a drop-off rate of just 7% among the 89% of mothers who initiated breastfeeding. But NHS Westminster did already have a low drop-off rate in 2009/10, at 6%.

Nationally, there was a 0.6% improvement in initiation rates and no change to the number of mothers still breastfeeding at six to eight weeks. Overall, NHS spending on maternity and reproductive health services has decreased by almost 4%, with the number of midwives and health visitors dropping by 6% annually.

Judy Aldred, managing director of Ssentif, said: ‘The Department of Health places huge emphasis on the importance of breastfeeding and says there is a clear case for investing in services to support it as part of a local child health strategy. However, this seems at odds with the reduction in spending and staffing we have found.'

Emma Pickett, breastfeeding counsellor from the Association of Breastfeeding Mothers, said: ‘It's not rocket science. Babies who are not breastfed are more likely to be hospitalised in their first year of life from issues like gastroenteritis, and mothers and babies not supported to breastfeed get re-admitted for dehydration. That all costs money, so we'll simply pay for the underspend in the end.'

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