Helping more mothers breastfeed is a policy goal shared by many governments. Advocates argue that breastfeeding has a positive impact on a child’s physical, cognitive and behavioural development. Because of overlaps with other factors such as a mother’s social class or education, it is hard to measure precisely the degree to which breastfeeding alone benefits a child, but most policy-makers accept there is a benefit and want to know how to encourage more mothers to start it and stick with it. The incidence of breastfeeding varies significantly between women with different ethnic backgrounds and in different ways in the UK and US. Professor Yvonne Kelly from the ESRC International Centre for Lifecourse Studies at UCL asks if there are clues here as to how best to encourage women from different backgrounds to breastfeed their children.
The UK has one of the lowest breastfeeding rates in the world, although according to the NHS Infant Feeding Survey of 2010, the proportion of babies breastfed at birth is 81%, up from 76% in 2005. At three months, the proportion of mothers breastfeeding exclusively is 17%. At six months, the figure is just 1% and that has not changed since 2005.
The same survey found that breastfeeding was most common among mothers who were: aged 30 or over, from minority ethnic groups, left education aged over 18, in managerial and professional occupations and living in the least deprived areas.
The fact that younger, less educated, less well-off women are less likely to breastfeed is not surprising. Indeed, encouraging breastfeeding is at least partly about reducing inherited disadvantage. What may be less obvious (to the majority population, at least) is that ethnicity appears also to be a significant factor.
Millennium Cohort Study
When we looked at the data in the Millennium Cohort Study, which has been tracking the lives of some 20,000 children born at that time, we saw that well over 90% of Black African and Black Caribbean mothers at least started breast feeding.
The figure was over 85% for Indian and Bangladeshi mothers, 75% for Pakistani mothers and 67% for white mothers. Even after adjusting for demographic, economic and psychosocial factors, the difference remains significant.
At three months, with a range of factors considered, Black African mothers are more than 5 times more likely than white mothers to have started and continued to breastfeed. Clearly, if we understood why Black mothers were more likely to breast feed than white mothers we might have a better understanding of how to encourage all mothers to breast feed.
An important part of our efforts to gain a clearer picture was to look for similar patterns in similar countries. So we did a comparison with the United States, where the overall rates for breastfeeding are very similar to the UK, as are the links between breastfeeding and socioeconomic status. Not at all similar, however, are the links between ethnicity and breastfeeding.
In the US, the highest rate, according to the National Immunization Survey in 2002, was among Hispanic mothers, at 80%. 72% of white mothers initiated breastfeeding. Only 51% of non-Hispanic black mothers did. So, in the UK black mothers are the most likely to breastfeed. In the US, they are the least likely.
Why the difference, given that usually, health problems suffered disproportionately by black Caribbean people in the UK affect black Americans similarly. Is there a mistake somewhere? We consider the possibility of recall bias in light of the fact that data were collected when the children were 9 months old.
It does seem reasonable to suspect mothers might want to believe they did more breastfeeding than was actually the case. But there is no obvious reason why that bias should apply differently in the UK and US. As the study suggests, the contrasting findings in the UK and US raise important wider questions about the nature of ethnic disadvantage.
One possible answer is that differences in breastfeeding reflect strength of cultural tradition and degree of “integration”. This, of course, can vary for similar ethnic groups in different “host” communities. The important thing is not the ethnic group itself, but the relationship between it and the rest of society.
Dominant cultural practices
Our study found that those who spoke only English at home were less likely to breastfeed. That raises the concern that as incoming groups adopt dominant cultural practices, their tendency to breastfeed will reduce. Cultural factors certainly merit further investigation, given that the only thing we considered in this study was whether English was the main language spoken at home.
Black people in the UK and black people in the US have different histories and, therefore, different identities. There are differences, too, in their “host” communities. In this instance, the very different health systems could be particularly relevant. Maybe future research should concentrate on this relationship rather than the behaviour of groups defined by characteristics that appear to have only secondary significance.
Those responsible for developing and implementing policies aimed at increasing breastfeeding rates in this area would certainly be advised to pay close attention to the different social, economic and cultural profiles of all ethnic groups.
Racial/ethnic differences in breastfeeding initiation and continuation in the United kingdom and comparison with findings in the United States is research by Yvonne Kelly, Richard Watt and James Nazroo and is published in Pediatrics, Official Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics..
Photo credit: US Breastfeeding Committee