Breastfeeding as a public health responsibility: a review of the evidence

J Hum Nutr Diet. 2017 Dec;30(6):759-770. doi: 10.1111/jhn.12496. Epub 2017 Jul 26.


Background: Although intention to breastfeed in Western culture is high, many women stop breastfeeding before they are ready. From a physiological perspective, rates of primary milk insufficiency or contraindications to breastfeed should be low. However, numerous women encounter numerous barriers to breastfeeding, many of which occur at the social, cultural and political level and are therefore outside of maternal control. This review identifies and examines the impact of these barriers and considers how public health services should play a central role in creating a supportive breastfeeding environment.

Methods: A narrative review to synthesise themes in the literature was conducted, using Web of Science, PubMed and Science Direct. Barriers to breastfeeding at the societal rather than individual level were identified (e.g. in relation to health services, policies and economic factors). Only English language papers were included.

Results: Many barriers to breastfeeding exist at the societal rather than individual level. These influences are typically outside mothers' control. Five core themes were identified; the need for investment in (i) health services; (ii) population level health promotion; (iii) supporting maternal legal rights; (iv) protection of maternal wellbeing; and (v) reducing the reach of the breast milk substitute industry.

Conclusions: Although individual support is important, breastfeeding must be considered a public health issue that requires investment at a societal level. Focusing solely on solving individual issues will not lead to the cultural changes needed to normalise breastfeeding. Countries that have adopted a multicomponent public heath strategy to increase breastfeeding levels have had significant success. These strategies must be emulated more widely.

Keywords: breastfeeding; formula feeding; infant feeding; public health; society.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Breast Feeding*
  • Evidence-Based Medicine*
  • Female
  • Health Education
  • Health Promotion*
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Mothers
  • Public Health*