Posted on 18 October 2012
Research commissioned by UNICEF UK reveals that low breastfeeding rates in the UK are costing the NHS millions of pounds.
This research shines a spotlight on the profound protective effects which breastfeeding has on both mother and child
Professor Mary Renfrew
The study, which involved the Department of Health Sciences at the University of York, takes an in-depth look at how raising breastfeeding rates would save money for the health service.
Breastfeeding protects babies and mothers against many illnesses. Improving care in the NHS has led to more women starting to breastfeed, but care is still patchy and a lack of support across society means that many breastfeeding mothers encounter problems which can cause them to stop before they want to.
The report, entitled Preventing Disease and Saving Resources: potential contribution of increasing breastfeeding rates in the UK, was carried out by a team which also included Dundee University, Oxford University, Brunel University, and St George’s, University of London, as well as the National Childbirth Trust.
Because data around the protective effects of breastfeeding is not always collected at the level of detail needed, the team identified four categories of diseases or conditions with different levels of evidence currently available. Reliable costs could only be modelled for a handful of the many illnesses where breastfeeding is thought to have a protective effect, so the figures are likely to be a fraction of the potential savings.
Nonetheless, calculations from a mere handful of illnesses where breastfeeding is thought to have a protective effect revealed potential annual savings to the NHS from a moderate increase in breastfeeding rates of approx £40m per year. The true cost savings are likely to be much higher.
The research concluded that it is clear – even taking a conservative view - that investing in services to support women to breastfeed for longer would provide a rapid financial return, with higher breastfeeding rates leading to greater savings.
Professor Mary Renfrew, formerly head of the Mother and Infant Research Unit, in the Department of Health Sciences at York, led the group.
Professor Renfrew said: “This research shines a spotlight on the profound protective effects which breastfeeding has on both mother and child.
“It shows that the NHS could save money in different ways, both from the immediate costs of treating acute infant diseases, and longer term savings from reduced incidence of breast cancer. Larger scale savings from chronic diseases are also likely, although the evidence was not in the form required for calculating costs. There would also be considerable health gains for both mothers and babies.”
Professor Renfrew, who is now at Dundee University, added: “It is clear that putting resources into supporting women to breastfeed successfully would be hugely cost effective to the NHS, as well as preventing the distress and pain felt by a mother who has a bad experience of breastfeeding.”
UNICEF UK Deputy Executive Director Anita Tiessen, said: “We know that 90% of women who stop breastfeeding in the first six weeks discontinued before they had wanted to. As a society we are failing mothers and babies, and this new report shows that low breastfeeding rates in the UK are costing the NHS millions of pounds each year – as well as causing untold distress and suffering for families.
“We want to see breastfeeding recognised as a major public health issue from government level through to local children’s centres, and appropriate investment and legislation put in place to give mothers a better experience of breastfeeding. The good news for commissioners is that our research shows that money invested to help women breastfeed for longer would provide a rapid financial return.”
She added: “Enabling women to breastfeed for as long as they choose is a health issue where the interests of the mother, baby and health service all align.”