Women in the UK are far less likely to breastfeed their children than in any other country in the world. New research reveals that social pressures are responsible for this worrying statistic.

Speaking at the British Science Festival, Dr Amy Brown, Associate Professor at the University of Swansea’s College of Human and Health Sciences, stated that by 12 months the UK has the lowest rates of breast-feeding worldwide at just 0.5%.

She compared this to rates in Scandinavia, where 98% of women breastfeed immediately after birth and 80% are still doing so at six months, whereas in the UK only 80% of women start off breastfeeding, dropping to just 25% at six months.

Breastfeeding is associated with lower rates of infection, an improved bond between mother and child and lower rates of postnatal depression. If the rates could be raised to just 50% at six months, this would save the NHS an estimated £40 million in prevented health problems. Furthermore, Dr Brown adds that "It is free. It is encouraged. It is convenient." Yet despite the majority of mothers wanting to breastfeed more than half of British babies are having at least some formula by the end of their first week.

"There is no physical problem. Society creates the problem." explains Dr Brown. "Only 1-2% of women are physiologically unable to breastfeed.’ She goes on to describe how society gives mixed messages to new mothers, simultaneously exhorting them to breastfeed, while denying them the practical support necessary to achieve this goal.

Indeed, despite the evidence in support of breastfeeding, it remains hotly debated in the press and on social media. Despite laws that protect women’s right to breastfeed in public, there are frequent press stories about women being advised against breastfeeding or humiliated in public for breastfeeding. Dr Brown revealed that she had herself has been targeted on social media by individuals strongly opposed to breastfeeding, as a result of her research.

Dr Brown explains that the reasons for the UK’s current status go back many decades to the 1960s, when formula milk was first widely promoted as a superior alternative to breastfeeding and suggests that a crackdown on advertising of formula milk is necessary if we are to reverse this trend. Her research points to persistent societal attitudes that prevent women from feeling comfortable to breastfeed in public. She highlights the impact of celebrity culture, which leads to women only feeling valued ‘if they’re are out socialising or working’ after giving birth, when instead they ‘should be resting and caring for their babies, not getting on with what society wants them to do’.

She believes that the government should provide more resources to help women straight after birth in the form of support groups and trained breast feeding specialists. In order to raise the importance of these issues in parliament, an All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Infant Feeding and Inequalities has recently been established.

Dr Howard Ryland is a Wellcome Trust Media Fellow, placed at the Londonist. He is a ‎Higher Specialty Trainee in Forensic Psychiatry at ‎South West London and St George's Mental Health NHS Trust.