The Australian Breastfeeding Association says the culture of breastfeeding in Australia needs to change if health benefits, such as the prevention of metabolic disease in mothers, are to be fully felt.
A study of more than 50,000 women published in US journal Diabetes Care has found women who have children are more likely to develop type 2 diabetes than those who never give birth.
But it found breastfeeding for three months per child can offset that risk.
The manager of the association’s lactation resource centre, Kate Mortensen, says while this is good news, more needs to be done for breastfeeding babies and mothers.
She says when babies reach three months of age, only about 65 per cent of Australian mothers are still breastfeeding, and by six months that figure drops to about 40 per cent.
“That’s been the state of play now for quite a number of years,” she said.
“Mothers still choose to breastfeed, it’s just that they are not seemingly able to keep it going, and so we need skilled lactation support for problems that they face.
“They need good maternity leave so they know they do have a period where they can be at home with their babies and establish lactation. They need good community support and we need more knowledge about breastfeeding out there.”
Ms Mortensen says one of the most common reasons why mothers start supplementing with formula is because of perceived low supply.
“Overall, from my 20 years of counselling mothers, it seems that mothers don’t realise there is not this deep community understanding that a breastfed baby needs to be fed anywhere between eight and 12 times in 24 hours – so that means you are feeding a baby quite often, ” she said.
“There is still this old-fashioned idea that a mother should feed a baby three to four hourly at evenly spaced times throughout the day, which is totally unrealistic. The normal baby will have lots of frequent feeds and their feeding patterns change as they get older.”
Australia’s most recent dietary guidelines, published in 2003, suggest 80 per cent of mothers breastfeeding at six months is an achievable goal.
“But we haven’t even reached 80 per cent at three months,” Ms Mortensen said.
Ms Mortensen says the health benefits associated with breastfeeding are well-known and the recent Australian study backs up previous research in the US, which found the longer the duration of breastfeeding, the lower the risk of diabetes for the mother.
“There is research around lactation helping to reduce the weight that you keep from pregnancy. It also affects where your weight is lost from,” she said.
“You’re in a different metabolic state while you’re breastfeeding. You have a reduced reaction to stress and you have a lowered blood pressure.
“The research on weight loss because of lactation is quite mixed but overall it does seem to have a beneficial effect on mothers’ weight loss – breastfeeding does use calories, but it also affects your metabolism. You require less insulin while you’re breastfeeding, so it affects your metabolism at a quite a deep level.”
Last year the Federal Government put forward a National Breastfeeding Strategy for 2010 to 2015.
The association says this strategy must be supported and implemented if the health benefits of breastfeeding are to be maximised.