Despite all the recent findings that underline the benefits of breast milk, health professionals seem to be paying little more than lip service to breastfeeding.

A survey among midwives and health visitors in Newcastle upon Tyne showed an alarming disregard for the needs of both baby and mother.

Of the 50 first time mothers who took part in the survey, 30 were separated from their babies on the first night, while 28 babies had received food or water rather than breast milk.

Nearly half the professionals in the survey confirmed that breastfed babies were frequently given water to drink.

The survey, conducted by Sally Beeken and Tony Waterston of the Community Child Health department at Newcastle General Hospital, was intended to measure attitudes of professionals to breastfeeding.

Most professionals agreed that breast milk is better for babies than formula milk, but 28 per cent disagreed that breastfed babies are healthier, and nearly half disagreed that milk company advertising should be banned in antenatal clinics.

Although 71 per cent of professionals agreed that lay organizations should be advertised, only 45 per cent felt they should be allowed into hospital to help women with their breastfeeding.

This was a surprising response, as 35 of the 50 participating mothers had difficulties with breastfeeding. Twelve had stopped breastfeeding by three weeks, and nine had stopped in the first week. The most common reasons were that the baby was not getting enough milk; the mother could not tell how much milk the baby was getting; the mother was too ill; the baby was ill or rejected the milk; and engorgement and painful nipples.

The study team also points out the ambivalence of the professional toward breastfeeding. While they seem to agree about the superiority of breast milk, they seem less clear about the reasons.

They were also concerned that all is not well with hospital management if so many mothers found it difficult to breastfeed. The high rate of mothers who stop breastfeeding in the early weeks in the survey, 18 per cent had stopped within the first 10 days is disturbing, but corresponds with national trends.

The team recommends that health professionals are updated more often, while the involvement of lay groups, such as the National Childbirth Trust and La Leche League, should be encouraged.

lThese findings have been endorsed by a separate and earlier study in Fife, Scotland. There, just 40 per cent of mothers were still breastfeeding by the tenth day, according to Sarah Williams of Cambridge University School of Clinical Medicine.

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Written by What Doctors Don't Tell You

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