Overweight mothers are more likely to stop breastfeeding in the first week after having a baby compared to those of a healthy weight, a new study has found.
They are also less likely to continue breastfeeding after four months.
Breastfeeding is known to offer a range of health benefits to both babies and their mothers. For example among babies, breastfeeding reduces the risk of infections, diarrhoea and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). Among women, it reduces the risk of breast cancer, ovarian cancer and heart disease.
According to 2016 figures from the HSE, almost 57% of mothers in Ireland are breastfeeding when they leave hospital after having a baby, however these initiation rates are among the lowest in the world. Furthermore, breastfeeding rates tend to steadily decline in the weeks after going home.
UK and New Zealand researchers decided to investigate this further. They looked at over 17,000 mothers who had given birth over a two-year period.
Around 70% of these began breastfeeding and when characteristics, such as age and education were taken into account, the researchers found that weight did not appear to affect initiation of breastfeeding. In other words, overweight women were just as likely to begin breastfeeding as women of a healthy weight.
However, the study found that having started breastfeeding, overweight mothers were more likely to stop within one week of giving birth. They were also less likely to continue breastfeeding beyond four months.
Overall, 26% of overweight mothers quit breastfeeding in the first week compared to 18% of healthy weight mothers. Meanwhile, 38% of healthy weight mothers who breastfed continued beyond four months compared to 32% of overweight mothers and 27% of obese mothers.
"Improving breastfeeding rates is a priority, so our findings can provide some tentative indications of one group of mothers who could potentially be helped.
"Because we find no substantial differences in initiating breastfeeding between healthy/overweight women, we speculate that a substantial proportion of overweight women are likely to want to breastfeed, but have more difficulty doing so, and could benefit from good quality support," commented the study's author, Dr Tammy Campbell of the London School of Economics.
However, the researchers emphasised that this support ‘really does need to be good quality - practical and sensitive - for those who want it'.
"Breastfeeding seems to be beneficial for those for whom it works, but experiences around it can be fraught and complex. We don't want this research to be interpreted in a way that guilt trips women, which can add to postnatal depression and other negative postnatal experiences, as this can obviously be very detrimental to mothers and babies.
"And we don't want to advocate clumsy box-ticking or flagging, or deficit-based approaches to mothers. We think that interpreted sensitively, and with the right resources, our findings could help breastfeeding to work for more women," Dr Campbell added.
The researchers looked at different reasons which might explain the findings, but could not find a difinitive pattern. They called for more research to determine why overweight mothers stop breastfeeding sooner.
Details of these findings are published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.
Discussions on this topic are now closed.