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Research reveals how pandemic has hit vital breastfeeding support

Professor Amy Brown

A new research collaboration led by Swansea University has highlighted a lack of high-quality breastfeeding support for some families during the Covid-19 pandemic.

It found that changes to service delivery and social distancing measures meant some women struggled to find the support they needed, leaving them feeling isolated and let down. Although some mothers said the last few months had had a positive impact on their breastfeeding experience, many didn’t – with more than 80 per cent of these mothers stopping breastfeeding in the early weeks after birth.

The study led by Professor Amy Brown, Director of the centre of Lactation, Infant Feeding and Translation at the University, in collaboration with Imperial College London UKRI Future Leaders fellow and co-founder of the Human Milk Foundation and Hearts Milk Bank Dr Natalie Shenker explored the experiences of more than 1,200 mums who breastfed during the pandemic.

The findings revealed a very mixed picture. Around 40 per cent of mothers surveyed said lockdown had a positive impact on their experience, their confidence grew so they breastfed for longer. They valued the privacy lockdown provided along with a supportive partner at home and more time to focus on their baby.

However, around 30 per cent of mothers said they had felt isolated, abandoned and overwhelmed at the intensity of being alone with their baby. Although some managed to continue breastfeeding, around 82 per cent of those with negative experiences stopped during lockdown, often before they were ready, blaming a lack of face-to-face support.

The researchers discovered lockdown hit the less privileged the hardest. Mothers living in high rise flats, without access to an outside area or wi-fi, struggled the most. Mothers from BAME populations not only reported receiving lower support compared to mothers from White backgrounds but were also more likely to stop breastfeeding.

Those with the most vulnerable babies appeared to have had more challenging breastfeeding experiences – 20 per cent of mothers with a child in neonatal intensive care were restricted from being with their babies; 80 per cent of these stopped breastfeeding in the first six weeks compared to 10 per cent of mothers who had unrestricted visiting.

Inaccurate messaging and safety fears relating to Covid-19 and breastfeeding also played a role. A third of mothers who needed to contact a health professional about breastfeeding difficulties did not do so because they were worried about safety or concerned for the overloaded NHS. Others worried that breastfeeding was not safe due to the virus, exacerbated by misleading social media articles and health advice.

Professor Brown said ‘The findings highlight a critical gap in support for some breastfeeding mothers during the pandemic. It is vital that we work to ensure that high-quality infant feeding support continues to be delivered.
“We know that on a population level breastfeeding protects infant and maternal health and reduces NHS costs but its emotional impact for families should not be underestimated. When women have to stop breastfeeding before they are ready this can have a long-lasting negative impact upon their mental health.”

Dr Natalie Shenker added “Breastfeeding is not only safe but recommended during Covid-19, even if a mother has symptoms. There is no clear evidence of transmission of the virus through breastmilk, but emerging evidence that mothers exposed to the virus are likely producing protective antibodies in their milk.”

Professor Brown said: “We are concerned the gap between those who already have supportive factors conducive to encouraging breastfeeding and those who face barriers is being widened by this pandemic. The findings regarding our most vulnerable babies in neonatal care are particularly alarming. Human milk is important for all babies, but especially those who have the most challenging start in life.”

Dr Shenker said the postnatal period was under-resourced before the pandemic and the research demonstrated things had got worse for most new mothers, particularly the disadvantaged.

She said: “It is time for a national conversation to avoid this being replicated as we enter a second wave.”