Low breastfeeding rates in the UK are costing the NHS millions of pounds, according to new research by St George’s, University of London and partners.

The report – commissioned by UNICEF UK – takes an in-depth look at how raising breastfeeding rates would save money through reducing illness. Calculations from a handful of illnesses, where the evidence is strongest, show that moderate increases in breastfeeding could see potential annual savings to the NHS of approximately £40million per year.

 



However, this figure is likely to be only the tip of the iceberg when the full range of conditions affected by breastfeeding are taken into account.

For diseases where evidence was strongest, the authors produced quantitative economic models around five illnesses (breast cancer in the mother, and gastroenteritis, respiratory infections, middle ear infections and necrotising enterecolitis (NEC) in the baby), showing how moderate increases in breastfeeding would translate into cost savings for the NHS:

➢ If half those mothers who currently do not breastfeed were to do so for up to 18 months over their life, there would be:
- 865 fewer cases of breast cancer
- With cost savings to the NHS of more than £21million
- Improved quality of life equating to more than £10million over the lifetime of each annual cohort of first-time mothers

➢ If 45 per cent of babies were exclusively breastfed for four months, and if 75 per cent of babies in neonatal units were breastfed at discharge, each year there would be:
- 3,285 fewer babies hospitalised with gastroenteritis and 10,637 fewer GP consultations, saving more than £3.6million
- 5,916 fewer babies hospitalised with respiratory illness, and 22,248 fewer GP consultations, saving around £6.7million
- 21,045 fewer GP visits for ear infection, saving £750,000
- 361 fewer cases of the potentially fatal disease necrotising enterocolitis, saving more than £6million

Breastfeeding protects babies and mothers against many illnesses. Improving care in the NHS has led to more women starting to breastfeed, but care is still patchy and a lack of support across society means that many breastfeeding mothers encounter problems that can cause them to stop before they want to.

“We know that 90 per cent of women who stop breastfeeding in the first six weeks discontinued before they had wanted to,” said UNICEF UK deputy executive director Anita Tiessen.

“As a society we are failing mothers and babies, and this new report shows that low breastfeeding rates in the UK are costing the NHS millions of pounds each year – as well as causing untold distress and suffering for families.

“We want to see breastfeeding recognised as a major public health issue from government level through to local children’s centres, and appropriate investment and legislation put in place to give mothers a better experience of breastfeeding. The good news for commissioners is that our research shows that money invested to help women breastfeed for longer would provide a rapid financial return.”

She added: “Enabling women to breastfeed for as long as they choose is a health issue where the interests of the mother, baby and health service all align.”

The report, entitled Preventing Disease and Saving Resources: potential contribution of increasing breastfeeding rates in the UK, was carried out by a  multi-university academic team including St George’s (led by Dr Anthony Williams, reader in child nutrition), Dundee University, Oxford University,  University of York, and Brunel University, as well as the National Childbirth Trust.

Because data around the protective effects of breastfeeding is not always collected at the level of detail needed, the team identified four categories of diseases or conditions with different levels of evidence currently. Reliable costs could only be modelled for a handful of the many illnesses where breastfeeding is thought to have a protective effect, so the figures are likely to be a fraction of the potential savings.

UNICEF claims it is clear – even taking a conservative view – that investing in services to support women to breastfeed for longer would provide return on investment within a few years, possibly as little as one year. It says that higher breastfeeding rates would yield greater savings.

Professor Mitch Blair, officer for health promotion at the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPH), said: "The RCPCH recognises the important contribution breastfeeding can make to the health of mothers and children in the short and long term. It recognises the need to promote and invest in services which aim to support all mothers so that they can breastfeed as long as is desirable."