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Encouraging and supporting breastfeeding is recognised as an important public health activity.
There is good evidence that breastfeeding in infancy has a protective effect against many childhood illnesses. Breastfed infants are likely to have a reduced risk of infection, particularly those affecting the ear, respiratory tract and gastro-intestinal tract. This protective effect is particularly marked in low birth weight infants.
Other probable benefits include improved cognitive and psychological developments, and a reduced risk of childhood obesity. There is evidence that women who breastfeed have lower risks of breast cancer, epithelial ovarian cancer and hip fracture later in life.
A key section of the 2007 Scottish Government action plan 'Better Health, Better Care' lays out the benefits of giving children the 'best possible start'. These actions include encouraging NHS Boards to increase the proportion of newborn children who are exclusively breastfed. A health improvement target has been set to increase the proportion of newborn children exclusively breastfed at 6-8 weeks in Scotland from 26.2% in 2006/07 to 32.7% in 2010/11 (an increase of 25%).
Support and encouragement for breastfeeding can be provided at many levels. For example: health promotion campaigns at a national level; policies in maternity hospitals at NHS board level and primary care teams working with individual women and groups within the community. While these can support and encourage mothers to initiate and continue breastfeeding, there are a wide range of other factors that influence mothers. Maternal age and deprivation are known to be strongly associated with the likelihood of breastfeeding.
The latest Breastfeeding Statistics were released on 26 October 2010. A Statistical Publication Notice explains the key points from this release.