The demographics of breastfeeding
December 20, 2011 § 3 Comments
In 2006, Australian health ministers agreed to a headline indicator on infant feeding. It is this: The proportion of infants that are exclusively breastfed at four months of age.
Australian and World Health Organisation guidelines for infant nutrition currently recommend “exclusive breastfeeding” for the first six months of a baby’s life. Exclusive breastfeeding means that human breastmilk is the only source of nourishment. (The method of delivery – breast or bottle – doesn’t matter.)
So how’s that working out?
Today the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare released the first Australian National Infant Feeding Survey.
At the four month mark, only 27% of Australian babies are exclusively breastfed. By five months that figure drops to 15% and at six months of age only 2% of babies have breastmilk as their only source of nourishment.
Maybe “exclusive” breastfeeding is a bit too strict a target. Let’s drill down a bit, and look at infants that are “predominantly” breastfed. What that means is, breastmilk is the predominant source of nourishment. (The definition also allows for consumption of water, cordial (!), juice (!) and medicines. But no formula.)
At four months of age, 35% of infants are “predominantly” breastfed. At five months, 21% and by six months of age only 4% of babies are predominantly breastfed.
Given the government’s position, these figures seem, well, low. They’re low.
Worryingly, there’s a whole basket of demographic measures that increase (or decrease) the likelihood that a mother’s infant will be breastfed.
Younger mothers, mothers with less education, mothers with lower incomes, indigenous mothers, mothers who smoke, mothers who are obese (Obese? Why did they even test for this?)…The babies of women with these characteristics are much less likely to be predominantly breastfed at that four month mark.
And in some cases the gap is huge. The babies of mothers over 35 years of age are 2.5 times more likely (39.3%) to be predominantly breastfed at four months old than the babies of mothers under 24 years of age (16.4%). Something for Dr Barry Walters to consider.
There is some good news. Breastfeeding is “initiated” for 96% of babies. At six months, 60% of infants are still receiving “some” breastmilk.
But breastfeeding rates are diverging along socio-economic lines.
What’s going on here? And what can, or should, we do about it?