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New technology supports new mums to breastfeed

Public Health England’s Start4Life and Amazon Alexa helping mothers to breastfeed for longer.

Almost three-quarters of women start breastfeeding when their child is born, however by 6 to 8 weeks this drops to just 44%. This makes breastfeeding rates in England among the lowest in the world.

A new survey of 1,000 mothers of young children commissioned by Public Health England (PHE) revealed that in hindsight, mothers wished they had been better prepared for breastfeeding. Before the birth of their first child, mums’ biggest priorities were:

  • buying baby equipment (66%)
  • preparing for labour (49%)
  • buying baby clothes (40%)

However, post birth, nearly a quarter (24%) wished they had read about and were more prepared for breastfeeding and 1 in 4 (26%) of those who had given breast milk to their first child wished they had known that asking for help can make a real difference.

Evidence shows the right support helps mothers to breastfeed for longer. PHE’s programme Start4Life has created the Breastfeeding Friend to encourage parents to adopt healthy behaviours. It is available for free on a range of platforms, including Facebook Messenger, and now for the first time it will also be available as a skill for Amazon Alexa’s voice service.

Mothers can ask Alexa a variety of questions about breastfeeding and the answers will be provided tailored to the age of the baby. This means that they can get helpful advice even when their hands are full.

The survey also highlighted that almost a third (31%) of mothers also felt embarrassed about asking for help with breastfeeding from healthcare professionals. Many mothers can find breastfeeding challenging and often this may cause them to give up.

It also found that almost two thirds (64%) felt that access to 24 hours a day, 7 days a week breastfeeding support, such as a phoneline, website or chatbot, would make new mothers:

  • more likely to have a positive experience of breastfeeding
  • more likely to decide to try breastfeeding (59%)
  • breastfeed for longer (58%)

PHE recommends exclusive breastfeeding for around the first 6 months. Breastfeeding boosts a baby’s ability to fight illness and infection, and babies who are not breastfed are more likely to get diarrhoea and chest infections. Breastfeeding also lowers a mother’s risk of breast cancer and may reduce the risk of ovarian cancer.

Viv Bennett, Chief Nurse at Public Health England said:

“Breastfeeding, whilst natural, is something that mothers and babies learn together, and whilst learning, women may have questions and setbacks. PHE is working with health professionals to make sure women are not embarrassed and receive timely help. Health professionals do an excellent job of caring for new mothers, but they cannot be available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, which is where our Breastfeeding Friend from Start4Life is designed to help. This tool, together with the range of support materials from Start4Life, can provide breastfeeding advice at any time of night or day and support mothers and their partners and families through challenges they may face.

“These digital offerings will help guide new parents through their first weeks of breastfeeding and beyond, providing help at any time of the day or night, and aim to complement support and advice from health care professionals and breastfeeding specialists. The information provided by all the Start4Life services is NHS approved and both services are independent of Amazon and Facebook.”

Dr Cheryll Adams CBE, Executive Director Institute of Health Visiting, says:

“This innovative new service will enhance those already provided by health professionals. Whether a mother manages to establish breastfeeding is largely determinant on the support she receives in the first few days after birth. However, with such short hospital stays, professional support is not as widely available as it once was. To have this back up, which can be accessed from anywhere, will be hugely helpful and we expect health visitors to want to promote the service.”

Justine Roberts, CEO and Founder of Mumsnet, says:

“Breastfeeding is a hard-won skill for many women, and most mothers will experience a setback along the way, particularly in the first few weeks. We see from conversations on Mumsnet that mothers are looking for breastfeeding support 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and in fact middle of the night crises when face-to-face help isn’t available can be the most profoundly lonely and difficult. These new round-the-clock digital services could provide help when mothers need it most.”

More information, advice and tips on breastfeeding is available on the Start4Life website.

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