World Breastfeeding Week: step up for breastfeeding

By Clare Livingstone, Professional Policy Advisor RCM on 02 August 2022 NHS MSWs - Maternity Support Workers World Breastfeeding Week Breastfeeding

It's World Breastfeeding Week 2022 – Step Up For Breastfeeding. From 1 August, we will focus on inequalities and food security and how the cost of living crisis is biting at the finances of households across the UK. Poverty is on the increase and we know that right now many families are unable to access appropriate levels of nutrition.

Midwives and maternity support workers (MSWs) provide personalised care to women during pregnancy, birth and postnatally. They are mindful that some standardised advice and guidance needs tailoring to fit with the difficult realities of people’s lives.

We encourage mothers to breastfeed babies for six months exclusively and with complimentary foods for up to two years and beyond. However, not all women are able to breastfeed for the recommended period of time and look for breastmilk substitutes that are healthy and affordable.

As is the case with other state benefits, the value of Healthy Start has failed to keep pace with inflation. This means the costs of food and infant formula milk can be prohibitively expensive for some families and that results in them resorting to extreme measures.

We have heard alarming reports of baby milk being diluted to go further, instructions on preparation and storage not being followed to save electricity, and non-recommended milks being fed to babies.

Breastmilk is also being bought and sold commercially.

There are serious health implications with these practices. Clearly, preparing formula milk according to the manufacturer’s instructions is essential for a baby’s safety and wellbeing.

As for the emergence of unregulated, private, human milk companies, this development is extremely concerning for several reasons.

Unlike other products of human origin, such as blood, breastmilk is not regulated by the Medicine and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA). This means breastmilk sales are only governed by standards relating to food, falling under the remit of the Food Standards Agency (FSA).

Different regulatory, legal, safety and ethical standards apply to donor milk banks.

There is a total lack of safety data on commercially sold milk. Supplies may be pooled from different mothers, rendering screening and tracking almost impossible. It may be contaminated or supplemented to make up the volume, and we have seen no evidence that companies are checking any of this.

The RCM cautions that commercialisation of breastmilk carries a risk of exploitation. Furthermore, it could interfere with the effective and essential operation of non-profit making milk banks in the NHS and charitable sectors. This milk is donated for free with professional healthcare oversight.

Regulations need to be tightened to address these risks. And adequate levels of professional and financial support must be provided to women and families, so that babies can always be fed safely.