National Breastfeeding Week – Westminster Hall debate


Alison Thewliss (Glasgow Central) (SNP): I beg to move,

That this House has considered National Breastfeeding Week.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone, and to be lucky enough to have secured this debate during National Breastfeeding Week. I welcome Members in the Chamber and those who are breastfeeding as they watch our proceedings online.

Members well versed in social media might have noted that some great breastfeeding stories are circulating on Twitter under #celebratebreastfeeding—

4.30 pm
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

4.44 pm
On resuming—

Alison Thewliss: As I was saying before the Division, celebrating breastfeeding is the theme of this National Breastfeeding Week, and there is much to celebrate about that remarkable human act. Although completely natural, breastfeeding is also a skill that mothers and babies must learn together, and is not without its difficulties. I acknowledge that some women cannot breastfeed and others choose not to, and in holding this debate I do not seek in any way to judge them—those bottle feeding also require assistance and advice.

I will talk briefly about my experience of breastfeeding and why I am so committed to promoting it, before touching on its health and societal benefits. The UK has one of the lowest breastfeeding rates in the world, and lags far behind comparable nations in the OECD. There is a lot we can do to improve the experience of families in our constituencies.

I have breastfed both of my children, and despite being in this place from Monday to Thursday have managed to persevere in feeding my one-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Kirsty. She is not here today as a visual aid but in fact is in nursery in Glasgow, so my determination has been at some personal discomfort. When I had my son I was a local councillor in Glasgow and took the view that I could not take the time off work for maternity leave, so I combined my role with being a mum. During the past five years I have fed my children while fully participating in meetings of Glasgow City Council, and have been made very welcome in doing so by my colleagues. That the right to feed is enshrined in law in Scotland has been a real reassurance to me, and whether I have been feeding in a café, waiting for a bus, or in the stand at Hampden—I have been lucky in securing the backing of the tartan army for giving the wee man his tea at the game—I have been made welcome.

My colleague and good friend Aileen Campbell MSP, Scotland’s Minister for Children and Young People, has taken her own children, Angus and Crawford, into the Scottish Parliament Chamber; her youngest was with her during a stage 3 debate just the other week. Aileen and I are lucky, as not many mothers can do that at their work. I understand from speaking to colleagues that doing something similar in this place would be frowned upon. I seek to gently challenge that. We should take a lead and seek to be creative in how we support women to continue breastfeeding in all workplaces once they return from maternity leave.

It is 10 years since the historic Breastfeeding etc. (Scotland) Act 2005 put on the statute book the right to breastfeed in public places in Scotland. It is:

“An Act of the Scottish Parliament to make it an offence to prevent or stop a person in charge of a child who is otherwise permitted to be in a public place or licensed premises from feeding milk to that child in that place or on those premises; to make provision in relation to the promotion of breastfeeding; and for connected purposes.”

That important piece of legislation was a Member’s Bill proposed by the Labour MSP Elaine Smith. I pay tribute to her today for the work she did to make it possible for so many women in Scotland to breastfeed secure in the knowledge that no one has the right to stop them.

There are now greater rights in England and Wales, afforded by the Equality Act 2010, under which discriminating against a woman because she was feeding a child became unlawful. That is significant, and I commend all who made it happen. We far too often see tabloid tales of mothers being shamed for the simple act of feeding a hungry child. That is completely unacceptable, and every such story destroys women’s confidence; they need to hear from their elected representatives that breastfeeding is welcomed and that they are supported.

Getting the right support is absolutely crucial. Without that and without information, establishing breastfeeding can be incredibly difficult. As I said, breastfeeding is natural, but it is not easy. Without the assistance of the breastfeeding counsellors at the Princess Royal maternity hospital in Glasgow, who sat with me through the tears and the pain, I may have given up myself. Not all women will have experience of breastfeeding within their families or peer groups. Good public health information must be there to counter the ever-present adverts for bottles and formula milk, as well as perceptions and prejudices.

I recall that, at an event in Glasgow, Councillor Jim Coleman told me how women in some parts of the city were made to feel that breastfeeding was evidence that someone could not afford to buy formula. We know that runs absolutely counter to all wisdom on the benefits of breastfeeding, but those kinds of old wives’ tales persist and must be challenged by people in those communities.

Since this debate was announced, I have been contacted by various individuals and by organisations including the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, the Royal College of Midwives, the Breastfeeding Network, the World Breastfeeding Trends Initiative, the UNICEF “Baby Friendly” initiative and the National Infant Feeding Network. I am grateful for the extensive briefings they have provided.

The organisations all reinforced the need for support. Their evidence demonstrates that women start breastfeeding, and initiation rates have risen from 62% in 1990 to 81% in 2010. But the drop-off rates are staggering: only 17% are still exclusively breastfeeding at three months, 12% at four months and 1% at six months. There are also huge variations across social class; other factors include deprivation, maternal education, age and ethnicity.

Scotland is lagging behind, and the Scottish Government are putting strategies in place to tackle that; they also held a summit on breastfeeding in February. Recent figures from the “Growing Up in Scotland” cohort survey found that breastfeeding was strongly associated with multiple socioeconomic factors. For example, 60% of degree-educated mothers exclusively breastfed to six weeks or more, compared with 18% of those with Standard Grades; 53% of mothers living in the least deprived areas breastfed exclusively to six weeks, compared with only 21% in the most deprived areas; and 45% of mothers in their 30s and 41% of those aged 40 or older at their child’s birth exclusively breastfed to six weeks or more, compared with 35% of mothers in their 20s and only 12% of teenage mothers.

Members will be aware that breastfeeding is good for maternal and infant health. Benefits to children from breastfeeding include reduced gastrointestinal, respiratory, urinary tract and ear infections, lower incidence of allergies and a reduced likelihood of developing obesity. For women who choose to breastfeed there are lower risks associated with breast and ovarian cancer, less chance of hip fractures and osteoporosis in later life, and the added benefit that it helps with getting back to their pre-baby weight.

UNICEF has done excellent work in documenting the savings that could be made to public health services through breastfeeding and its benefits, and I commend its document “Preventing disease and saving resources” to the House. “The 1001 Critical Days” is a manifesto that is also well worth a read.

Increasing breastfeeding rates in areas of multiple deprivation has a clear multiplier effect. James P. Grant, who was executive director of UNICEF from 1980 to 1995, said:

“Breastfeeding is a natural safety net against the worst effects of poverty…exclusive breastfeeding goes a long way towards cancelling out the health difference between being born into poverty or being born into affluence. It is almost as if breastfeeding takes the infant out of poverty for those few vital months in order to give the child a fairer start in life and compensate for the injustices of the world into which it was born.”

Those are striking words, and it is to areas of multiple deprivation that I believe resources should be targeted, but most certainly not in a heavy-handed way. Instead, local networks, existing organisations and women themselves need to be given the skills and knowledge to spread the word among their peers and to challenge the old wives’ tales I spoke about. They must work across the whole experience of pregnancy and parenthood. Public Health England found in March 2015 that the most effective strategies for promoting breastfeeding were among smaller local peer support groups. There is a lot of excellent information online, from KellyMom to Mumsnet, but there remains a digital divide, and at times of crisis having a local network to fall back on is hugely valuable.

That kind of work is often facilitated by the voluntary sector, and we need to ensure that that is maintained even in these straitened financial times. I understand that the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) will refer to a local case, and I have I have been contacted by mothers in Lambeth and Southwark who discovered that funding for their work would be cut. They have been hugely successful in increasing breastfeeding rates in their area. Such projects should be treated as exemplars, and their good practice should be taken on board.

In my contact with several organisations, there have been a couple of broader asks that it would be neglectful of me not to mention. The first is that there should be financial support for the National Infant Feeding Network, which I understand had its funding cut in 2014. The funding that was cut was a meagre £30,000, which went a very long way to organising and supporting a network of 600 infant feeding specialists. They are responsible in turn for the education and support of some 70,000 health professionals across England who reach 650,000 mothers and babies every year. That is crucial, for the reasons I mentioned. Breastfeeding mothers really need support, especially in the early days.

Secondly, the Department of Health should continue to strive for the implementation of UNICEF Baby Friendly standards in maternity, community and neonatal services. In the UK the percentage of services with full Baby Friendly accreditation are 49% of maternity services; 51% of health visiting services; 37% of university midwifery courses; and 9% of health visiting courses. It is important that those professionals should all have the skills to enable them to pass on information to the women they help.

The percentage of births taking place in fully Baby Friendly-accredited hospitals stands at 44% in England, a wonderful 84% in Scotland, an even better 92% in Northern Ireland, and 60% in Wales. The impact of services being Baby Friendly-accredited is that mothers get consistent advice and support throughout their pregnancy and in the early months after the birth. It is not just about hospitals, but about embedding good practice across the range of provision. That means that there should not be any kind of postcode lottery, so that women and families can feel confident about breastfeeding.

Thirdly, I implore the UK Government to reinstate the national infant feeding survey across the UK. The main basis for the statistics I have given to demonstrate the need for more support today is that five-yearly study, which I understand has been on the go since 1970. It fits into the World Health Organisation’s global strategy for infant and young child feeding, which recommends that Governments carry out a survey to track rates and target support effectively. Without the data, we lose touch of where we stand in the world and what work we need to do. The Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish Governments have all committed to keep it going, and I urge the Minister also to commit to it, to complete the statistics for the whole UK.

Fourthly, I seek the Minister’s advice on where the UK currently sits with regard to full implementation of the international code of marketing of breast milk substitutes, which was adopted by the World Health Assembly in 1981. I support calls by groups such as Baby Milk Action for the UK Government to play their part in protecting the public from aggressive and damaging marketing by the formula industry.

My final plea is a personal one. I have come into this place as a breastfeeding mother, which has been hard for me, even in this position of relative privilege. I ask for the consideration of all parents in this place—Members, staff and visitors—and of how we can make it easier for them. I ask colleagues to consider what they can do in their own constituencies to celebrate and support breastfeeding in this and every week of the year. Could our local cafés be more welcoming? Are our own offices a safe space for nursing mothers? Could we encourage investment in support services in our areas, and do we know where they are so that we can send them recommendations? We all have a role to play in encouraging the uptake of this most basic human need.