Support services for new mothers are being cut across England, leading experts to warn that increasing numbers of women will lose breastfeeding advice and face isolation during the first year of parenthood.
Breastfeeding classes, home visits from midwives and “baby cafes”, where parents can gather with their infants, are being increasingly scaled back or closed because of cuts to the budgets of local authorities and the NHS, the Guardian has learned.
This has raised concerns among parenting groups, children’s charities and medical experts who warn that the health and welfare of mothers and babies will suffer. There is particular worry that it will worsen Britain’s already poor take-up of breastfeeding.
An array of services, including those which provide social networks and mental health support to new families, face the chop. Many of them are being lost owing to the closure of children’s centres which provide support, childcare and activities for young families.
The charity 4Children says as many as 112 children’s centres will close this year. Mothers of newborns in Tamworth, Staffordshire, can no longer access a specialist service that offers advice at home about how to look after their baby from a support group of women who had given birth years before because it closed in March.
Staffordshire county council withdrew funding for the scheme used by up to 300 mothers a year used, despite a huge outcry locally.The service also offered help from NHS health visitors and midwives about problems such as tongue-tie, a birth defect that affects feeding in up to one in 10 babies.
“The beauty of peer support is that we had time to sit with the mums day in and day out; that was our role. This is what sustains breastfeeding,” said Ellie Fielding, who coordinated the service for 10 years. “The health visitors would try and do their best but with the best will in the world, they couldn’t spend two hours with just one mother. I just feel so sad for the mums.”
For Liz Hines, who has a 25-month-old baby, it wasn’t just help with breastfeeding that she received. She was struggling and had been diagnosed with postnatal depression.
“The group was an invaluable lifeline to me and was instrumental in improving my mental health. It gave me the strength to battle on and continue feeding through postnatal depression, when all around me everyone was telling me to quit and focus on myself.
“I instinctively knew the guilt if I gave up would make the depression worse rather than better. [Finding the group] was such a huge turning point for me and my baby.”
Elsewhere, a breastfeeding counselling service in Basingstoke is facing closure after losing funding from Hampshire county council while Brent clinical commissioning group slashed funding for its own service this year. Campaigns to save support in Leicestershire and Lewisham, south-east London, have resulted in last minute reprieves.
A petition has been started to save community breastfeeding clinics in south London run by Kings College Hospital Trust. The service not only provides daily drop-in sessions for new mother but also home visits for vulnerablewomen in more deprived areas and those with mental health problems.
Michaela Lawrence, a mother of two, started the petition after hearing that the service would close in September. “I was horrified and slightly tearful,” she said. “It had had such a big impact on my life because when you’re trying to feed a new baby, it’s really difficult. It really was only because of these highly qualified midwives and the expert advice I received that I was able to breastfeed.”
Five specialist midwives and one lactation consultant are to be redeployed by the Trust although it is not yet known where to. Lawrence said: “It kind of feels like they are playing funding politics at the expense of new mothers. They aren’t looking at the bigger picture.”
Research by the National Childbirth Trust (NCT) shows an overwhelming number of women said they would have stopped breastfeeding without expert help they received at baby cafes, for example, where new mothers meet up and are supported by specialist midwives.
Rosemary Dodds, senior policy adviser of NCT, said: “Evidence shows that 80% of mums who stop breastfeeding do so because of a lack of support. As a charity which champions parents’ choice we would like to see mothers getting the assistance they want and need. We would like to see improved services for all parents including those who want to breastfeed but are struggling.
“NCT supports both mums who decide to bottle-feed and those who want to breastfeed by providing a helpline, breastfeeding counsellors and drop in sessions. Research shows this kind of support has practical and psychological benefits for mothers, impacting on the wellbeing of their babies.”
It is thought that several dozen cafes have closed this year with several more in Oxfordshire facing the same fate. The NCT, however, was unable to confirm the exact number.
UK breastfeeding rates still lag behind many western countries
While breastfeeding at birth – known as initiation – rates have increased in the UK from 62% in 1990 to 81% in 2010, the most recent figure, according to the NCT, there is still a sharp decline in the proportion continuing to breastfeed after that.
A NHS report this week suggest 57% of mothers are still breastfeeding by the time their baby is six-weeks-old and just 34% by six months. This is despite recommendations that all babies should be breastfed until at least six months.
The UK is also lagging behind many other western countries – 80% of Norwegian mothers still breastfeeding after six months.
Jacque Gerrard, Royal College of Midwives director of England, said: “It’s every midwife’s responsibility to support women in breastfeeding both with initiation and continuation. In a community setting where services are really stretched, women turn to other kinds of support like baby cafes and peer support. Midwives can only do so much.
“If we are in a position where we are 3,000 midwives short [which we are] now and if there are going to be cuts to these community services, that is going to have an impact on continuation rates, which is a real worry.”
Annie O’Leary, editor of the UK’s biggest parenting site, Netmums, said: “Cutting breastfeeding services may save money in the short term, but in the long term it will end up costing more. Studies show encouraging mothers to breastfeed for longer would save the NHS an estimated £40m every year. And natural nursing instead of using formula saves mums around £550 a year, helping balance family finances at a time when money is tight.”
This article was written by Nicola Slawson, for theguardian.com on Sunday 28th June 2015 15.00 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010