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Breastfeeding promotes the healthy growth and development of infants and young children. In Australia, The National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) publishes infant feeding guidelines recommending that infants be exclusively breastfed (Box 1) until around 6 months of age when solid food are introduced. The guidelines also recommend that breastfeeding be continued until 12 months of age and beyond, 'for as long as the mother and child desire' (NHMRC 2015).
There are a range of factors which can influence breastfeeding related to the individual and the environment (Boones et al. 2019; Schmied et al. 2012), and it is important to acknowledge that not every mother chooses to, or is able to, breastfeed.
Box 1: Definition of breastfeeding terms
- Exclusive breastfeeding: The infant receives only breast milk and no other liquids (including water or infant formula), semi-solid and solid foods, except for medications and vitamin and mineral supplements
- Ever breastfed: The infant has been breastfed or received expressed breast milk or colostrum at least once
- Still breastfeeding: The infant receives breast milk and any food or liquid including non-human milk and formula (WHO 2003).
Breastfeeding provides many benefits for both mother and child. Breastfeeding promotes the healthy growth and development of infants and young children, with benefits extending into adult life (Binns et al. 2016).
Breastfeeding provides infants with a nutrition source that is easy for their digestive systems to absorb, and changes composition over months and years to meet the child’s nutritional, immunological and developmental needs (Kim and Yi 2020). In infants, breastfeeding is also reported as being protective against infections of the ear, respiratory tract and gastrointestinal system, sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) and malocclusion in baby teeth (Bowatte et al. 2015; Horta and Victora 2013; Hauck et al. 2011; Tham et al. 2015).
In adolescence and adulthood, breastfeeding has been associated with improved cognitive development and a reduction in the risk of living with overweight and obesity and chronic conditions such as diabetes and asthma (Pereyra-Elías et al. 2022; Lefebvre and John 2013; Morris 2018; Miliku and Azad 2018).
Important short- and long-term health benefits have also been seen for mothers (Anatolitou 2012). The immediate maternal benefits of breastfeeding are reduced bleeding and infection after birth, assistance with spacing between pregnancies and maintaining a healthy weight (Victora et al. 2016; Kennedy et al. 1996; Stuebe et al. 2010).
Breastfeeding also provides many long-term benefits such as reduced risk of Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and breast, ovarian and endometrium cancer (Stuebe et al. 2005; Kirkegaard et al. 2018; Stordal 2023; Stuebe 2009; Babic et al. 2020; Jordan et al. 2017).
Breastfeeding can have economic benefits at the family level as well as for broader society. For example, families may have no or reduced costs to buy infant formula for the first years after birth (Perez-Escamilla and Segura-Perez 2023). Higher breastfeeding rates lead to lower healthcare costs as breastfeeding protects against a range of diseases.
According to a 2002 study, early weaning was estimated to add around $60 million to $120 million to annual hospitalisation costs for gastrointestinal illnesses, respiratory and ear infection, eczema, and neonatal necrotising enterocolitis in Australian hospitals (Smith et al. 2002).
Evidence indicates that feeding with infant formula had almost twice the carbon footprint of breastmilk (Andresen et al. 2022). Infant formulas can negatively impact the environment through production processes related to cattle farming, deforestation, packaging and transportation (Becker and Ryan-Fogarty et al. 2019; Smith 2019). In comparison, breastfeeding uses few resources and produces minimal or no waste.
There are multiple barriers and enablers that influence breastfeeding practices including biological factors, attitudes, and support.
Demographic factors can influence breastfeeding practices. For example, mothers aged 25 and under were less likely to exclusively breastfeed to 4 months, and more likely to introduce infant formula earlier than mothers aged 35 and older (AIHW 2011).
Additionally, the 2010 Australian National Infant Feeding Survey (ANIFS) showed mothers with lower levels of education, income and socioeconomic status had lower rates of breastfeeding initiation and shorter breastfeeding duration (AIHW 2011).
Mothers with tertiary education qualifications and higher socioeconomic status were more receptive to beneficial health behaviours – such as breastfeeding – and were more likely to seek out support networks (Neves et al. 2021; Boone et al. 2019). These mothers may be more likely to have a supportive workplace and/or home environments for breastfeeding and access to external support systems for breastfeeding issues.
Culturally and linguistically diverse mothers had higher rates of exclusive breastfeeding cessation within 6 months according to the 2010 ANIFS. In a 2012 study of migrant women, participants reported that they struggled to continue breastfeeding while adjusting to life with a baby in a new country (Schmied et al. 2012). Furthermore, migrant women who valued traditional postpartum practices but lacked access to them were more likely to stop breastfeeding (Schmied et al. 2012). Migrant women also had difficulty in accessing culturally appropriate information and support services (Dennis et al. 2018)
Breastfeeding rates are lower among mothers who were living with obesity (body mass index (BMI) of 30 or higher) compared to those within the healthy range (BMI between 18.5 and 24.9) (Hashemi-Nazari et al. 2020). This may be due to a multitude of reasons such as delayed ability to secrete breast milk (Hashemi-Nazari et al. 2020).
Mothers may also cease breastfeeding due to low breast milk supply related to postpartum haemorrhage, mastitis and taking oral contraceptive pills containing oestrogen (Thompson et al. 2010; Pevzner and Dahan 2020). In rare cases, this may be due to the breasts not having enough glandular tissue, which is responsible for producing breast milk (Spatz and Miller 2021).
Research has found that having a baby that was born pre-term or small for gestational age was also associated with lower breastfeeding rates (Lutsiv et al. 2013; Nejsum et al. 2023). These babies potentially have reduced energy and may breastfeed less vigorously and effectively, leading to subsequent weight loss, which negatively impacts the mother’s confidence with breastfeeding (Dooks et al. 2020). Additionally, these babies are taken to neonatal intensive care units (NICU) for observation and treatment which may adversely impact the establishment of breastfeeding due to the introduction of formula at an earlier age (Nejsum et al. 2023). This could lead to higher rates of breastfeeding cessation or formula use.
Women who received any form of support were less likely to stop exclusive breastfeeding before five months than women who did not (Babakazo et al. 2015). Support can take various forms including home visits from trained breastfeeding support providers, helplines, online peer support groups as well as encouragement from partners, family and friends (Babakazo et al. 2015). Having a supportive partner, family and friends can have a positive influence on initiating and sustaining breastfeeding (Snyder et al. 2021).
Access to supportive environments for breastfeeding, particularly workplaces, are an important indicator of continued exclusive breastfeeding (Bradford et al. 2017). Women who had access to working from home, flexible working hours, private space for expressing milk, and paid maternal and paternal leave were more likely to breastfeed for a longer duration (Vilar-Compte et al. 2021).
The Australian National Breastfeeding Strategy: 2019 and beyond (the Strategy) recognises breastfeeding is not only an individual woman's issue and aims to provide a framework for integrated, coordinated action to guide Commonwealth, state, territory and local government programs and policies to support mothers, partners, and their infants throughout their breastfeeding journey (CHC 2019).
The key goal of this strategy is to meet the WHO global nutrition target by raising the rate of exclusive breastfeeding in the first 6 months up to at least 50% by 2025.
The Strategy outlines three priority areas to better enable and support breastfeeding. These are:
- Structural enablers
- Settings than enable breastfeeding (for example, breastfeeding-friendly environments which support breastfeeding in the workplace)
- Individual enablers (for example, universal access to breastfeeding support services, particularly for priority groups).
Each of the priority areas are supported by action such as:
- community education and awareness – ensuring clinical care services, support and education are readily available
- increasing the number of settings that are conducive to breastfeeding, such as programs and initiatives that support breastfeeding in the workplace
- a review of regulatory arrangements for restricting the marketing of infant formula products
- increasing health professionals’ education and training surrounding breastfeeding.
- universal access to breastfeeding support services, such as antenatal education about the importance of breastfeeding, and enhanced post-natal support for breastfeeding.
Box 2: Breastfeeding resources and support
The following resources and suppport services provide breastfeeding and general support and education for parents:
This report will discuss the prevalence of breastfeeding in Australia, focusing on breastfeeding duration and breastfeeding by state or territory, remoteness area and among First Nations mothers.
Box 3: Data sources and methods
This article is primarily based on data from the 2020–21 National Health Survey (NHS) conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS). Between August 2020 and June 2021, the survey was carried out in all Australian states and territories, including urban, rural and remote areas (for more information see National Health Survey 2020–21).
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander data reported in this article is from the 2018–2019 National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Survey (NATSIHS) which was conducted between July 2018 and April 2019. The survey collected information from First Nations people of all ages in non-remote and remote areas of Australia, including discrete Indigenous communities (for more information see National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Survey 2018-2019).
The NHS 2020–21 was collected online during the COVID-19 pandemic and is a break in time series. Data reported can’t be compared to previous years.
The data in this report focuses on infants that were aged 0–3 years at the time of the surveys.
The NHMRC recommends that infants be exclusively breastfed until 6 months of age and then continued breastfeeding alongside suitable complementary foods until 12 months of age and beyond (NHMRC 2015).
According to the 2020–21 National Health Survey (NHS) 96% of infants aged between 0–3 years were breastfed at least once (ever breastfed).
The survey showed that breastfeeding declined as the infants ages increased with:
- 80% of infants received breast milk at 4 months
- 74% received breast milk at 6 months
- 51% received breast milk at 12 months.
The data visualisation (Figure 1) presents data on the proportion of infants aged 0–3 years whoever received breast milk for 4, 6, and 12 months of age, in 2020–21.
Figure 1: Proportion of infants aged 0–3 years who ever received breast milk at 4,6, and 12 months of age, in 2020–21
The bar chart shows the proportion of infants aged 0-3 years that received breast milk decreased as their ages increased.
In 2020–21 the NHS reported that two-thirds (66%) of infants aged 0–3 years were exclusively breastfed at 4 months, and around one-third (35%) at 6 months.
The NHS reported:
- Rates of exclusive breastfeeding ranged across states and territories from 47% in the Australian Capital Territory to 30% in Tasmania
- Exclusive breastfeeding rates also varied across remoteness areas from 38% in Major cities to 27% in Remote areas.
The following data visualisation (Figure 2) presents data on the proportion of infants aged 0-3 years by exclusive breastfeeding status for at least 6 months, and state or territory or remoteness area of participant’s residence, in 2020–21.
Figure 2: Proportion of infants aged 0-3 years by exclusive breastfeeding status for at least 6 months and remoteness area and state or territory, in 2020–21
The bar chart shows that infants living in Major cities and Western Australia had higher rates of exclusive breastfeeding at 6 months.
The NHS also reported that in Australia the proportion of infants (0-3 years) who were:
- exclusively breastfed for at least 6 months and continued to breastfeed to 12 months was 2.9%
- exclusively breastfed for at least 6 months but less than 12 months was 33.5%
- not exclusively breastfed for at least 6 months was 63.9%.
These percentages vary from Australia in Figure 2 as data has been randomly adjusted to avoid the release of confidential data.
The current recommendation is to introduce solids at around 6 months, so that infants can receive nutrients that are essential for growth and development (NHMRC 2015). Introducing solids also helps infants learn how to eat and gives them an experience of new tastes and textures, while developing their teeth and jaw (Borowitz 2021).
The NHS reported that the introduction to soft, semi-solid or solid food varied depending on the age of the infant with 3.3% being introduced at less than 4 months. This increased to 41% at 4 months and 54% at 6 months or later.
The most common reasons for the introduction of food and/or drink other than breast milk were that:
- the infant was ready to have other foods (59%)
- there was not enough breast milk (26%)
- the infant was not attaching properly (9.3%)
- expressing breast milk was difficult (7.1%).
The following data visualisation (Figure 3) presents the proportion of common reasons for the introduction of food and/or drink other than breast milk, in 2020-21.
Figure 3: Proportion of common reasons for the introduction of food and/or drink other than breast milk, in 2020-21
The bar chart shows that the most common reason for starting food or drink than breast milk was that the child was ready to have other foods
Breastfeeding practices among First Nations communities have been disrupted by colonisation, prior to which First Nations mothers routinely breastfed their infants, usually for two to four years (Mitchell et al. 2023).
The reduced transmission of cultural breastfeeding practices – and the introduction of non-Indigenous practices such as bottle feeding and the use of infant formula – contribute to the lower breastfeeding rates among First Nations women, especially in urban areas (Springall et al. 2022).
According to the 2018-19 National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Survey (NATSIHS), 85% of First Nations infants aged 0-3 years had ever breastfed.
The NATSIHS showed that the rates of breastfeeding varied across state or territories and remoteness areas with:
- The rates of breastfeeding ranged from 94% in Queensland to 70% in Victoria
- Rates of breastfeeding varied across remoteness areas with 94% in Remote areas to 82% in Major cities.
The following data visualisation (Figure 4) presents the proportion of First Nations infants aged 0-3 years who ever breastfed by state or territory and remoteness area, in 2018-19.
Figure 4: Proportion of First Nations infants aged 0-3 years who were ever breastfed by remoteness and state or territory, in 2018-19
The bar chart shows that First Nations infants who lived in Inner regional areas had higher rates of ever receiving breast milk.
The NATSIHS reported that exclusive breastfeeding rates also differed across states or territories and remoteness areas:
- Exclusive breastfeeding rates for 6 months ranged from 23% in Western Australia to 15% in Queensland
- Exclusive breastfeeding rates for 6 months varied from 41% of infants in Very remote to 12% in Major cities.
The following data visualisation (Figure 5) presents data on the proportion of First Nations infants aged 0-3 years by exclusive breastfeeding status for at least 6 months, and state or territory or remoteness area of participant’s residence, in 2018-19.
Figure 5: Proportion of First Nations infants aged 0-3 years by exclusive breastfeeding status for at least 6 months and remoteness area and state or territory, in 2018-19
The bar chart shows that First Nations infants living in Very remote areas had higher rates of exclusive breastfeeding at 6 months.
The NATSIHS also reported that the proportion of First Nations infants (0-3 years) who were:
- exclusively breastfed to 6 months and continued to breastfeed to 12 months was 11.7%
- exclusively breastfed for at least 6 months but less than 12 months was 7.5%
- not exclusively breastfed for at least 6 months was 80.6%.
These percentages vary from Australia in Figure 5 as data has been randomly adjusted to avoid the release of confidential data.
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