Reporter 422, 8 June 1998

Breastfeeding research goes to heart of health inequalities

Leeds experts are among eight university teams to receive a share of £1.7m Department of Health funding announced by Minister for Public Health Tessa Jowell for research into health inequalities. Researchers at the Mother and Infant Research Unit, led by Dr Mike Woolridge, have been given £250,000 to increase breastfeeding uptake. The grant was announced at the start of National Breastfeeding Awareness Week.

Britain has one of the lowest breatfeeding rates in Europe – 66 per cent compared to almost 100 per cent throughout Scandinavia – despite strong evidence to suggest that breastfeeding is beneficial to both mother and child. Breastfeeding protects babies against gastro-enteritis, ear and chest infections and is also associated with lower risk of eczema, wheezing and childhood diabetes. Mothers who breastfeed are at a lower risk of pre-menopausal breast cancer, ovarian cancer and hip fractures in later life.

Yet women from the most deprived backgrounds, whose children are most at risk from ill-health, those from certain ethnic groups and certain regions are least likely to breastfeed. Their children suffer long-term and irreversible inequalities in their health.

Nobody really knows why women choose to breastfeed or not and the aim of the research is to explore what women most unlikely to breastfeed see as the main barriers. The long-term aim is to develop and test new ways of raising breastfeeding levels.

The Mother and Infant Research Unit, previously known as Midwifery Studies, has close research links with other University groups. Links with NHS Trusts in Leeds and across the region support the integration of research, education and clinical practice.

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