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Sunday, April 4, 1999 Published at 02:27 GMT 03:27 UK


British zeal for breastfeeding

Breastfeeding rates vary across Europe

British mothers breastfeed their babies more often than most other Europeans, according to a continent-wide study.

Portuguese, Irish and Greek mothers feed their babies an average of more than eight times every 24 hours.

But the British are not far behind with an average of seven and a half times a day.

Bottom of the league are Eastern Germany and Hungary with an average of around six feeds a day.

The researchers who compiled the league table say the figures are surprising since most European mothers are nowadays given the same advice to breastfeed on demand.

They say the physiological needs of the child are also very similar so the data shows that mothers from different countries interpret the advice in different ways.

Writing in The Lancet medical journal, the researchers say: "The large difference in the number of breastfeeds per day show that mothers from different European centres interpret the demands of their infants and their own needs quite differently."

Different interpretations

The Euro-Growth Study questioned mothers in 22 centres in 12 European countries.

The average number of breastfeeds across Europe was just over seven times in any 24-hour period for infants aged one month old.

Dr Margaret Lawson of the Institute of Child Health said that while it was "probably true" that different countries had different interpretations of feeding on demand, there were holes in the data.

Cities in the same countries showed fairly different results.

For example, two centres in Madrid gave different readings and Barcelona had a much higher rate.

The numbers of mothers questioned also varied quite widely.

"Interpretation of need depends very much on mothers' social environment, for example, the advice they get from their parents and relations as well as what they receive from health workers," said Dr Lawson.

She added that some mothers may be told that if an infant cries a lot it is because it is bored, needs its nappy changing or wants attention.

"But in the first month babies cry because they are hungry," she said.

If their demands for food are not met, they will keep crying, she added, or they will try to make up for the lost milk at the next feed.

"But it is quite difficult for very small babies to take in a lot of milk because they have very small stomachs and they get quite tired.

"It is hard work suckling and they can fall asleep on the job.

"This means they may not be able to take in sufficient food and that they do not gain as much weight as other babies," she said.

Flow of milk

Another problem is that mothers - particularly first-time mothers - who feed more often in the first month are more likely to develop a good flow of milk and satisfy their baby's hunger.

Those who feed less may end up with unhappy babies who do not gain weight.

They are therefore more likely to give up and switch to formula feeding, said Dr Lawson.

Demand feeding is the only documented method of breastfeeding until the mid-18th century.

Scheduled feeding was introduced by wealthy English women so that they could carry out their social functions.

However, it fell into disrepute at the end of the 18th century because infant mortality and disease rose.

In the early 20th century, French and German child experts began recommending strict timetables for breastfeeding and as recently as the 1950s, but the tide turned in the 1960s and 70s.

Dr Lawson said little scientific research had been done into the effects of scheduled breastfeeding.

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