The Covid-19 pandemic resulted in significant changes to maternity services particularly in 2020. Many women have reported that their breastfeeding experience was adversely affected by these changes and the additional challenges of giving birth in the first year of the pandemic. Few studies have compared breastfeeding rates before and during the pandemic using comparable data across time.
We compared breastfeeding rates in England before and during the pandemic using data from national maternity surveys carried out in 2018 and 2020. During the pandemic, there was no change in the percentage of women who breastfed their baby at least once, or in the percentage still breastfeeding at 6 weeks. Comparing these data to underlying trends in breastfeeding rates from previous maternity surveys (in 2010 and 2014) and annual routine data for England (from 2010 to 2020) shows that breastfeeding rates have remained relatively stable over the last decade.
Breastfeeding rates varied across different groups of women in both the 2018 and 2020 surveys. Women who were younger, left education earlier, were living in more socially disadvantaged areas, were of white British ethnicity and were born in the UK were the least likely to breastfeed. The breastfeeding rates observed across the different sociodemographic groups were broadly similar before and during the pandemic, indicating there was no change in inequalities.
Breastfeeding rates have remained relatively stable over the last decade and were largely unaffected by the pandemic. Importantly, the inequalities in breastfeeding did not widen. Maternity services should tackle the persistent inequalities and ensure that effective infant feeding support is available for all women in England in normal times and in times of crisis.