Pupils should be taught about the importance of breastfeeding in schools, leading children’s doctors have said.
“Familiarity with breastfeeding” should be part of personal, health and social education in schools, the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health(RCPCH) said.
A new position paper on breastfeeding, released at the start of World Breastfeeding Week, also calls on ministers to legislate for breastfeeding breaks and facilities suitable in all workplaces for breastfeeding or expressing breast milk.
The College said that the UK has “little to celebrate” in terms of its record on breastfeeding.
It said that Britain has one of the lowest rates of breastfeeding in Europe and criticised data collection surrounding breastfeeding.
The RCPCH called on the Government to reinstate the UK-wide Infant Feeding Survey, which was cancelled in 2015.
Data from 2010 show that only 34% of babies are receiving some breast milk at six months of age compared with 49% in the US and 71% in Norway .
At a year this figure fell to 0.5%.
Figures for England in 2015/16 show that while almost three-quarters of mothers started breastfeeding, this fell to 43.2% when babies were between six and eight weeks old.
The document suggests that social stigma is at heart of UK’s low breastfeeding rate.
Societal attitudes may lead to women feeling uncomfortable about breastfeeding in public or in the presence of peers and family members.
Meanwhile, maternal concern about whether an infant is receiving sufficient milk may result in reinforcement from friends, family and health professionals, to “supplement” with formula which undermines maternal milk production, the RCPCH said.
New RCPCH guidance also highlights the health benefits of breastfeeding for both mother and child, as well as the cost savings to families and health services.
The College advises that mothers should be encouraged and supported to breastfeed exclusively for up to six months and solid food should be introduced from six months, ideally alongside breastfeeding, to ensure the infant has adequate nutrition.
Meanwhile, mothers may experience practical problems in establishing breastfeeding, and fail to access or receive adequate practical support.
RCPCH president, Professor Neena Modi, said: “World Breastfeeding Week is 25 years old today, but the UK has little to celebrate in terms of its record. The health benefits of breastfeeding are beyond question, from reduced likelihood of intestinal, respiratory and ear infections to hospitalisation.
“Regrettably the attitudes of a large part of society mean breastfeeding is not always encouraged; local support is patchy, advice is not always consistent and often overly dogmatic, support in the workplace not always conducive to continued breastfeeding and perhaps most worryingly breastfeeding in public is still often stigmatised. It is no wonder that for many mothers, there are too many barriers.”
“With the right support and guidance, the vast majority of women should be able to breastfeed. But although it’s natural, it doesn’t always come naturally. Some mothers cannot, or choose not to, breastfeed and this also needs to be respected. What society must get better at is removing the multiple barriers which can stand in the way of breastfeeding.”
The RCPCH has also called on the NHS in England and the Welsh Government to ensure all maternity services achieve and maintain the UNICEF Baby Friendly Initiative accreditation - this requirement is currently met by all maternity units in Scotland and Northern Ireland.
A poll by the website Mumsnet of 1,030 mothers found that three-quarters said they believed that there was “too much emphasis on telling women why they should breastfeed, and not enough on supporting them to breastfeed”.
The survey identified a number of reasons why mothers stopped breastfeeding by six to eight weeks including: problems with latching, concerns over the amount of milk being produced, pain, exhaustion, difficulties with expressing milk and concerns over the baby’s weight.
Mumsnet chief executive Justine Roberts said: “There is no sense in endlessly telling women that they must breastfeed, but letting them down when they have a baby in their arms.
“Breastfeeding is a skill, and most mothers need support when they hit a problem, especially given that they are often shattered, sore and sleep-deprived.
“The guilt, anger and sadness experienced by many mothers who switch from breastfeeding is palpable, and it’s deeply unfair to leave so many feeling that they’ve failed.”
A new global report by UNICEF and the World Health Organisation (WHO) in collaboration with the Global Breastfeeding Collective found that only 40% of children younger than six months are breastfed exclusively.
“Breastfeeding gives babies the best possible start in life,” said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of WHO.
“Breastmilk works like a baby’s first vaccine, protecting infants from potentially deadly diseases and giving them all the nourishment they need to survive and thrive.”
UNICEF executive director Anthony Lake added: “Breastfeeding is one of the most effective - and cost effective - investments nations can make in the health of their youngest members and the future health of their economies and societies.
“By failing to invest in breastfeeding, we are failing mothers and their babies - and paying a double price: in lost lives and in lost opportunity.”