LONDON — Only 1 in 200 women in the U.K., or 0.5 percent, breastfeed their children until they are 1 year old — the lowest rate in the world.
That jaw-dropping figure was published this week in the Lancet medical journal in a study analyzing global trends in breastfeeding.
To put that in context: 27 percent in the U.S., 35 percent in Norway and 44 percent in Mexico were still breastfeeding after one year. The rates were remarkably higher in much of the developing world, with Senegal (99.4 percent), Gambia (98.7 percent) and Malawi (98.3 percent) topping the league table.
In a podcast on the Lancet website, Cesar Victora, a professor at the Federal University of Pelotas in Brazil, and one study’s researchers, said: “It’s a real paradox that this life-saving intervention is so much more common in the poor countries than in the rich countries.”
The researchers argued that prolonged breast-feeding could reduce infections, obesity in later life and child mortality rates. They also argued that significantly increasing breast-feeding rates could save more than 800,000 children’s lives a year.
How to boost Britain’s low rates has long been a subject of concern for health professionals here. In an ongoing study that began last year, a group of researchers offered 6,000 women in low-income areas up to 200 pounds ($284) if they mostly breast-fed their babies for six months.
At the top levels in Britain, the messages are loud and clear: Breast-feeding has a wide-range of benefits, and the government recommends breast-feeding exclusively for at least 6 months.
Women in Britain are given 39 weeks of paid leave, which is less than in some countries but more than the U.S., the only developed country that doesn’t guarantee any paid maternity leave.
Indeed, the majority of moms in the U.K. start off breast-feeding: 81 percent compared to 79 percent in the U.S. But it’s not too long before many moms introduce formula. At six months, 34 percent of women in Britain are breastfeeding compared to 49 percent in the U.S. and 71 percent in Norway.
Researchers have previously cited a number of reasons behind Britain’s bottle-feeding culture, including inadequate training of health professionals, a culture that encourages bottle-feeding if women face difficulties and a nervousness about nursing in public.
“Despite its established benefits, breastfeeding is no longer a norm in many communities,” wrote the authors of report published in The Lancet.