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?


§ 3 Responses to The demographics of breastfeeding

  • Anna says:

    I think there are a couple of things:

    – Belief that babies should be schedule fed from birth, as opposed to when supply is established after about 6-8 weeks (a lot of parenting books are still sold which say that you need to feed only every 3 hours, which is barely adequate to get milk supply established, and they don’t ever mention cluster feeding in the evenings)

    – Fear that the baby isn’t getting enough to eat (and if the mother has been schedule feeing, she may not have adequate supply, so this may not be an unfounded worry)

    – Pressure from others to mix feed, based on the idea that it will calm a fussy baby, help the baby sleep longer, give the dad bonding time, etc.

    – The ubiquity of formula (unlike other emergency foods/liquids, it is sold in supermarkets, not pharmacies)

    – Lack of understanding that mix feeding negates the benefits of breastfeeding entirely

    – Inadequate breastfeeding education before birth and inadequate support in the hospital after birth

    – Unsupportive attitudes from family members

  • Thanks for the comment! I think pressure to mix feed or give up entirely is a big factor. I also think that there are socio-economic issues at play. In particular, older mothers are more likely to be financially better-off, able to take extended leave etc while young mums may need to work and may be less prepared to devote their bodies to the task of feeding.

  • […] women do not receive adequate support to continue breastfeeding, and unfortunately, there are stark socioeconomic disparities, with younger mums, those who are less-educated, of a lower-income, or ind… – a pattern we see across Australia and the US, despite the fact that families in […]

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