Sorry Unicef, but breastfeeding isn’t as big a concern for the NHS as smoking

October 18, 2012

I was asked by a radio station if I’d like to go on and talk about this today, so here are my thoughts on Unicef’s research into how much money the NHS could save if more women breastfed.

As regular readers of this blog know, I’m a huge supporter of Unicef. But there are some issues which I feel too strongly about to stay silent. And No 1, for me, is the breastfeeding debate, because I firmly believe that how a woman feeds her child is no one’s business but her own. As long as the child is nourished and thriving, that’s all that matters.

I’ve seen too many women pressured into breastfeeding, or suffering from PND, to think otherwise. And it’s no use telling me they haven’t had the support, because they have. It’s just that breastfeeding really isn’t for everyone, however difficult some women may find that concept.

Anyhoo, the research from Unicef says  that the NHS could save £40m a year if women breastfed – not because they’d have to buy fewer bottles of formula for new mums, but because children would be more likely to grow up free from just about every kind of disease, illness and complaint under the sun, and also have higher IQs.

Personally, the part of the report I find most alarming, and to be honest, the part that’s making me cross, is this. It states that cot deaths and childhood obesity could be reduced by breastfeeding, and that increasing breastfeeding may have an impact on the prevention of diabetes, heart disease, ovarian cancer, asthma, leukaemia, coeliac disease in babies.

Which is frankly alarming and not very comforting for those of us who have been affected by any of these diseases and didn’t/weren’t breastfed… but wait, they don’t actually have the data to back this up. Not very helpful at all, then.

And as the mum of a child who achieved straight A’s all the way through school, had his first national newspaper article published last year, can speak three languages and is looking forward to a glittering academic career but wasn’t *gasp* breastfed at all the IQ argument won’t wash with me. (It’s genes, innit. And no, I wasn’t breastfed either.)

As the mother of a child with inherited asthma – that same straight A-student, who is incidentally 6ft 2 and as strong as an ox – I also resent the implication that it had anything to do with his not being breastfed. Yet another guilt trip which parents don’t need. In our case, the fact he has medically-proven allergies to pears and apples and grass pollen is the cause of his asthma. No amount of breastfeeding could have stopped that. The only thing that could make that better is if we lived in a tarmac car park by the sea.

But if you’re going to talk about saving the NHS money, it’s worth bearing in mind that smoking costs the NHS over £5.2bn A YEAR. Not to mention all those children who see their parents die early from lung cancer or, like me, lose their father prematurely to heart disease, and of course the risks from secondary smoking. So if you really want to know how to save the NHS money and look after the wellbeing of future generations, I’d say the answer’s fairly obvious.


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  • Selina Gough October 23, 2012 at 9:32 am

    I think this is such an emotive issue and people seem to always be getting a little too hot under the collar one way or another…

    The only point I wanted to make is that people keep talking about being judged or made to feel guilty by Unicef or by other people’s choices or by health professionals, etc etc. I don’t think this information is intended to make anyone feel guilty or judged it is there to encourage more women to try and more women to carry on even when it seems tough.

    For all the individual examples of healthy or unhealthy children given here, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that breast feeding is beneficial for the health of the baby and for mothers. This is just science, not judgement. And breastfeeding rates are still pretty low.

    Whenever we choose our own paths, we take responsibility for our decisions and sometimes we may carry a little guilt or a little regret. Or we may not – a lot of the time this is our own choice too.

    It may be helpful to put to bed the assumption that people disapprove of bottle feeding – it is after all how the majority feed their babies.

  • Mamacook October 20, 2012 at 9:05 pm

    I think there has to be more honesty about how hard breastfeeding is (and I breastfed for 13 months) and people then need support, not on how to breastfeed but on the shear physicality and exhaustion at times but I do think it’s important to give information based upon research.

    This is my problem when anyone (on either side of the debate) about breastfeeding says “but I wasn’t and I’m healthy and don’t have xxx” (insert good thing here) or “my friend was and she has xxx” (insert bad thing here). Within populations there will be wide variations. All lifestyle choices do is increase or decrease risks. Even if your risk of getting a disease is doubled from 10% to 20%, most people still won’t get it but some people who’ve done everything ‘right’ will. So by saying this one person is or isn’t affected it’s meaningless. There is no way of saying this individual will have been different had my choices been different, that’s not how it works, you can’t know.

    Obviously though it’s not meaningless to the individual. That’s why I would prefer scientific research to be reported in an accurate way. That said I have a bit more faith in people that if it’s reported accurately that people can weigh up the pros and cons and decide for themselves.

  • Emma Day October 19, 2012 at 6:06 pm

    I completely agree with you and if you don’t mind, I’d like to link to your post in mine that I published earlier today.

    I was utterly gobsmacked when I read what you said about UNICEF blaming not breastfeeding for leukaemia. I had never heard this. I was a breastfed baby and I had leukaemia when I was 8years old so I’m not buying into that one at all.

    I can’t help but wonder where UNICEF got their stats? I know a lot of mums that breastfeed. I don’t believe the percentages are as low as they suggest. I also believe people should have freedom of choice whether or not to breastfeed… Without all this pressure.


  • Vicky October 19, 2012 at 11:15 am

    Yes I agree CJ, there are so many reasons as to why people can’t or simply don’t want to breastfeed and this is totally fine, I have many friends who actually had no reason other than they didn’t want to. They are making their own decisions weighing up the pros and cons from the information they have and we have respect this.

    For me I am more concerned that there is not enough support for women who are able to breastfeed and of course want to. I look back to when I had my first and after a crash section I was desparate to do something deemed ‘natural’ and really wanted to b/f. I tried for 6 weeks and ultimately gave up, it felt like a lot of hard work, I was tired and those bottle fed babies around me seemed to be thriving and more importantly sleeping! I don’t feel guilty for making this decision more a little regretful that I wasn’t then able to see the bigger picture and that actually, after another few weeks I’d get a lot more sleep and that breast feeding is much easier than sterilising, washing, making up feeds, cheaper, worrying about having hot water to hand etc.

    I liken it to the time when as a teen I climbed half way up mount snowdon and then got cold, tired, bored and persuaded a teacher to walk back down with me, that I couldn’t carry on. My self now would have a quiet word with my teen self and say carry on, it’ll be worth it when you get there and then it’s downhill all the way. This is also what I’d like to have been able to tell myself, or have someone else to tell me about breastfeeding. But there just wasn’t the support, after the m/w have gone that was it and most around me from friends and family encouraged me to switch to the bottle so I could get some rest.

    Anyway, I’ve babbled! Back to Liz’s original arguement, my last point is that I didn’t agree with her statement, I’d rather see directives focused on increasing b/f rates rather than targeting smoking which I think is already being done successfully 🙂 and agree with the other commenter that tackling obesity and encouraging healthy lifestyles will be of more benefit too.

  • kathleen October 19, 2012 at 11:06 am

    I think the reasons women don’t BF can also be more historic from a family point of view. My husband’s grandmother BF all her children. When she had her youngest daughter she had been prescribed anti anxiety pills after the birth. She continued to BF. As she grew up it became apparent that she had severe learning difficulties and she suffered horrific seizures. She died at a very young age. The doctors later admitted that the medication OH’s gran had been taking had been tf to her through BF and caused brain damage. From then there developed a distrust of BF in my MIL who decided to bottle feed. This was also tf onto her own daughters. The reasons women decide not to BF are not always as simple as ‘they don’t want to’. For the women on my husband’s side of the family it was a case of protecting their children because of what had happened to that poor little girl. That’s a pretty strong experience to try and reverse with a ‘breast is best’ message.

  • Real life mummy October 19, 2012 at 9:26 am

    Well said. You will now get loads of hate mail from the breastfeeding militants, known as the breastapo who will gang up on you and send you loads of awful comments. You are completely right what you say. As you are clearly an intelligent woman who has a career that is not based on breastfeeding they will hound you, because you undermine the role they have created for themselves. Well done.

  • Vicky October 18, 2012 at 11:50 pm

    CJ- actually, I don’t think your comments were aimed at my post but more generally?! Hope so! I’m really not a breast is best brigadier just a “let’s all do what’s right for us but with all the info and support we need to make the right choice for the mother and baby” person 🙂

    • Crystal Jigsaw October 19, 2012 at 8:23 am

      Vicky, my comment was aimed at those in general who think they have a right to push women into doing something they might feel uncomfortable with. I had my own reasons not to attempt breast feeding, many which were personal, some that reflect on my prudish nature and probably the most important one being that I am epileptic and take drugs to keep it under control. Putting my personal reasons aside, the drugs alone could have caused damage to my baby and that wasn’t a risk I was prepared to take. Many women have reasons not to breastfeed, some medical, some personal, but they should never be made to feel guilty for going straight to the bottle. You may know that my daughter has autism and a very cruel remark was made once that maybe this wouldn’t have been the case should I have breast fed, utter rubbish of course because Amy was born with autism – apart from which, the person who made the remark knows absolutely nothing about special needs or indeed autism. Can you imagine how I felt when I was told that?

      I apologise to you because my comment was most certainly not aimed at you. To be honest, it was aimed at the very rude and ignorant person who commented on my own blog post that I wrote about my own reasons for not breast feeding; she said I was extremely selfish and insulted many of my regular readers which I don’t appreciate. I know my comment was strong but women fought for independence yet they are still being bullied and pressured in 2012 to do something they either can’t or don’t want to do.

      CJ x

  • Vicky October 18, 2012 at 11:30 pm

    *live* obvs.

  • Vicky October 18, 2012 at 11:29 pm

    Just catching up with this post, thought I’d make a few more comments!

    Liz- re the nhs costs, this may well be the case that more is spent but this could simply be that treatment costs have increased rather than an increase in numbers treated? If numbers of smokers are reducing then surely what has been done is working?

    Also, my point seems to have started the whole choice debate which is was not meant to, my disagreement was really with the headline, that quitting smoking should be seen as more of an issue that breastfeeding. As I said, I am not in any way anti bottle feeding and in fact I’m very much pro-choice but I am pro breastfeeding. I had a really positive experience second time around and would love for other women to be freely given the support they need to see that it does get easier and long term, in ‘normal’ circumstances it’s much easier than bottle feeding. The first six weeks are bloody hard so it’s no wonder that so many women simply feel they can’t carry in past this stage.

    CJ- wow. Strong comments, I have re-read my post back and didn’t feel it was so vitriolic as you thought? I apologise for this.

    Finally, to the point made about my comment re breast is best, this is still my belief, breast milk is undeniably best. But my saying this does not mean that breast feeding is undeniably best as clearly it isn’t, there are many reasons why sometimes it simply not, thank god we love in a society where we have a choice.

    • Crystal Jigsaw October 19, 2012 at 8:32 am

      Can I just say one other thing then I’ll scoot? I think the term “breast is best” is very misleading. I am a farmer and I KNOW that colustrum in a mother’s milk, i.e., sheep, dogs, cows etc, is best to nurture the young. But it is very wrong to brainwash a new mother, or indeed a second, third time mum, into believing “breast is best” when actually it’s the milk that is best, not necessarily the breast. Milk can be expressed and given in a bottle. Too many young mums are being made to feel a failure for not being able to feed from the breast and that, in my opinion, is just ridiculously unfair.

  • Metropolitan Mum October 18, 2012 at 9:37 pm

    Couldn’t agree more with you. Again, a ‘slight’ confusion of cause and effect. No wonder that children that are breastfed statistically have a higher IQ, as most of breastfed children are of better-off backgrounds. The same counts for childhood obesity – if you are obese yourself, chances are your child will be. Breastfeeding rates are lowest among those who are less well educated and earn less. At the same time, obesity is more common amongst this group of people.
    I am breastfeeding now and have done so with my first. But only because I find it enjoyable. I am exhausted at nights and my husband is giving our 3-weeks-old a bottle of formula so that I can get a bit of sleep. It’s that tiny bit of formula that’s keeping me from getting depressed. I bet the NHS is happy not to have to pay for PND treatment for me anytime soon. Thanks, Aptamil!!

  • Crystal Jigsaw October 18, 2012 at 9:34 pm

    Fantastically put, Liz. I am absolutely fed up with the breast is best rubbish because frankly, it isn’t. My daughter has been and still is a very healthy, fit, allergy free and energetic 12 year old. She’s hardly ever poorly, has beautiful skin, a beautiful figure and strong bones.

    I’ve been accused of being “extremely selfish” because I didn’t attempt breast feeding – it was my choice to make, no one else’s so no one else has ANY RIGHT TO JUDGE. If women want to breast feed or bottle feed it’s simply their choice and they should NEVER feel pressured to feed either way. Whether there is or isn’t support in hospitals and surgeries should have nothing to do with a woman’s choice on how to feed her baby. In a nutshell, people should butt out, stop expressing their self-righteous opinions on a very personal issue and quit spouting that breast is best. My daughter is living proof that bottle feeding is just as good. As obviously is your son. End of.

    CJ x

  • Lou October 18, 2012 at 9:13 pm

    Both my kids were breastfed… both my kids have horrendous ENT problems. Both having had their tonsils & adenoids out, and grommets put in. (twice in the case of the oldest). I loved breastfeeding, however it really isn’t the health elixir that its made out to be.

  • leslieanne October 18, 2012 at 8:57 pm

    Entirely with you on this, Liz.

    As with most things in life, I am pro-choice. With regards breastfeeding, I think yes, it’s a great thing, If It Works For You.

    Sometimes though, it just doesn’t. Sometimes, women don’t even want to try – that’s their call. Sometimes, women do try, really try, and just plain can’t, that can be soul destroying. Sometimes, there are women like me, who want to, who try, who DO, and end up taking their tiny baby back to hospital at 5 days old because he’s losing weight rapidly. (For the record, I had plenty {too much, if anything] of support & advice, and actually continued feeding for 4 months, while ‘topping up’ with formula.)

    The last thing any of those women need, on top of everything else that comes with being a new mum, is a guilt trip about how much their decision making costs the NHS.

    And as a side note, I can think of 2 friends of mine, both of whom exclusively breastfed for 9 months, both of whom have dealt with way more bouts of illness in their babies than I have. That’s not me trying to justify my own choice or belittle theirs, just a suggestion that *perhaps* breastfeeding isn’t quite the holy grail it’s made out to be.

  • kathleen October 18, 2012 at 8:36 pm

    Before I start I echo Liz’s post in that I support the view that a woman should be able to choose how she feeds her child without judgement as long as that child is healthy and thriving.
    I have to disagree with the commenter above on 2 counts. Firstly as a mother and secondly as a health worker.
    I bottle fed my first son and breast fed my second son (mainly through better support at a quieter hospital). My first son has never had gastric problems but my second son picks up a tummy bug just from someone heaving next to him. He’s been far more sickly than his brother. The research shows possible trends but it is not causative. You will never be able to truly prove that not breast feeding one child will be better for them than breast feeding another. There are too many variables in life. To restrict all variables would not be ethical. I would also like to know where, in a time of economic instability for the NHS, they are going to find the money and time to employ and train more BF counsellors and support, because if BF rates are to go up investment is needed. Where are they going to draw funds from, which patient group are they going to take money from?
    Second point as a health care worker: I have worked on cardiac wards, intensive care wards, chest wards and vascular wards. Most of the problems caused for these patients were preventable through stopping smoking, drinking or drastically improving their diet. We have a population with an increasing waistline heading towards morbid obesity. The research for exercise and increasing activity levels is causative in this case and shows that improving activity can help save lives. There was a recent WHO report that demonstrated this. However this report is never picked up on, it’s the emotive child related reports that are. If you really want a decent way to save NHS money then they should look into the cost of low back pain for the health service and the economy. Back pain costs the NHS over £1 billion every year.
    Can I also say that breast is not undoubtedly best if the mother is tearing her hair out and on the verge of PND.

    • Anna C October 18, 2012 at 9:02 pm

      Perfectly summed up. Thank you.

  • Liz Jarvis October 18, 2012 at 8:32 pm

    Vicky – thanks for your comment.

    Just to point out that in 2009 smoking cost the NHS £5billion. In 2011 it was £5.2billion.

  • Anna C October 18, 2012 at 8:26 pm

    I breastfed and I would do again, largely because I was breastfed and for me it was the right road to go down. However saying that I am dubious about the benefits of being breastfed that are continually pushed. My mum breastfed three children and now has osteoperosis and had breast cancer (both supposedly reduced risk if you breastfeed) and two of her breastfed children are asthmatic. The one ‘benefit’ of breastfeeding that really winds me up is that you are going to get your pre baby body back quicker. Hmmm have any of these proponents actually breastfed? If so they would know that producing milk and getting your boob out every two hours means that all you want to do is eat sugar and fat. All the time! I’m going to be interested to see the other comments on this.

  • Linda October 18, 2012 at 8:22 pm

    I’m in favour of choice, and allowing women to make an informed choice. I’m not in favour of people being told that they are a poor mother because of their feeding choice by people who have no knowledge or understanding of the circumstances in their family. Breastfeeding is promoted at every opportunity during antenatal care. I wonder whether the lack of mothers breastfeeding is more down to lack of engagement with antenatal care, or poor postnatal care.

    • Anna C October 18, 2012 at 8:34 pm

      I had shockingly bad postnatal care, one midwife told me it was ‘like breaking in a pair of new shoes’ and I had to go private to get help. I think this is a large part of the issue, breastfeeding is pushed as the best for your baby and easiest for you but the reality is it can be very difficult for some mothers and there isn’t the postnatal support out there so they stop and then feel guilty.

    • Liz Jarvis October 18, 2012 at 8:34 pm

      Linda – couldn’t agree more.

  • Vicky October 18, 2012 at 7:57 pm

    I couldn’t disagree more, the percentage of people smoking is falling thus suggesting that policies such as the smoking ban are working.

    Breastfeeding rates however are still extremely low and this needs to be addressed for the good of our NHS and of course our children. Breast is undoubtedly best so why would you not want to increase the rates at which women breastfeed? There have been numerous studies showing the increases in gastro illnesses as well as allergies are directly related to increased formula use.

    I can talk from experience having bottle fed my first born but breast fed my second. The differences were that first time I had no support and perhaps naive whereas second time around I was full of confidence, had amazing nhs support and perhaps an easier baby! In terms of their health it’s too early to say, neither have had any illness apart from the odd cold although my eldest suffers from tummy upsets quite often but time will tell.

    I think honestly if you had have breastfed your children you might have a different stance, I am personally not anti-bottle feeding but I am very much in favour of promoting breast feeding truthfully, honestly and considerately.