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Breastfeeding experiences and support: identifying factors influencing breastfeeding behaviour

02 April 2022
24 min read
Volume 30 · Issue 4

Abstract

Background

Breastfeeding rates at 6 months in the UK have remained low in recent years, highlighting a need to better understand the factors that influence breastfeeding behaviour.

Aim

To investigate factors that influence breastfeeding behaviour in the UK and to understand the role of health professionals in promoting and facilitating breastfeeding.

Methods

Participants with breastfeeding experience (n=1505) completed an online survey, with 30 agreeing to be interviewed. Survey data were analysed using quantitative content analysis and a mixed thematic approach was employed to analyse interview data. Themes were derived from triangulation of survey and interview data.

Results

The survey identified a range of feeding complications. Thematic analysis identified four themes related to factors influencing breastfeeding: attitudes, availability of information, birthing experience and maternal mental health.

Conclusions

Healthcare professionals play an important role in the decision to breastfeed. It is essential that appropriate support and information is made available from early in pregnancy and throughout the breastfeeding journey. Particular support and advice is needed for those who have experienced traumatic births or are struggling with poor mental health.

The evidence for the benefits of breastfeeding, for both mother and infant, have long been recognised (World Health Organization (WHO) and United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF), 2003). Breastfeeding is associated with physical health benefits to mothers such as protection against breast or ovarian cancer and a reduction in the likelihood of developing type 2 diabetes (Victora et al, 2016). Breastfeeding also has many benefits for infants such as improved immunity, reduced illness and mortality (WHO and UNICEF, 2003), and increased cognitive abilities (Lenehan et al, 2020).

Despite the established benefits of breastfeeding, rates within western societies are low (Bosi et al, 2016). In the UK, breastfeeding rates drop from 68% at birth to less than 50% at 6–8 weeks (Renfrew et al, 2012; Nicholson and Hayward, 2021). Determinants of early cessation of breastfeeding are multifactorial and can include a lack of information provision, poor support from healthcare professionals and family, unaccommodating work environments, public scrutiny, pain during feeding, frequent infant feeding and poor postpartum mental health (Oakley et al, 2014; Spencer et al, 2015; Feenstra et al, 2018; Keevash et al, 2018; Snyder et al, 2018). The growing industry of breastmilk substitutes presents a welcome alternative for struggling mothers in place of improved access to support and information and the promotion of an enabling environment for women who wish to breastfeed (Brady, 2012; Rollins et al, 2016).

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