Women breastfeed significantly less than recommended – survey

Science and Health

The Health Ministry’s new national survey on the state of health and nutrition of Israeli infants presents some improvements such as trying to breastfeed immediately after birth and keeping the newborn in the mother’s room, but it also points to worrying trends, such as a decrease in the rate of exclusive breastfeeding and an increase in the use of formula in the maternity wards.

Dr. Sharon Elroy-Preis, the ministry’s head of public health, declared: “Breastfeeding is sometimes challenging, certainly in the intense lifestyle we women live today, but exclusive breastfeeding until the age of six months is very important for the health of the newborn. It reduces the risk of crib death (sudden infant death syndrome or SIDS) and infections and also contributes to normal development. Breastfeeding also promotes the mother’s health in preventing breast and ovarian cancer and cardiovascular diseases. The ministry and the leading health bodies in the world recommend exclusive breastfeeding until the age of six months and then continuing while gradually exposing the baby to different foods. Breastfeeding also solidifies the emotional bond between the mother and newborn and can minimize post-natal depression.

Women can consult with Tipat Halav (well-baby clinic) nurses who can answer questions at *5400.

What was the survey?

The phone survey based on responses by 1,514 mothers of infants – 1,002 Jewish and others and 512 Arab mothers and was carried out in 2019/2020 by the National Center for Disease Control in collaboration with the ministry’s nutrition division and the mother, child and adolescent public health department. It focused on the nutrition of infants up to one year; its main goals were to find out the feeding habits of infants in Israel, including the frequency, duration and nature of breastfeeding and infant feeding, as well as to estimate the extent of situations and behaviors that cause concern such as underweight, overweight and obesity and to evaluate the responsiveness to the ministry’s policy recommendations of the ministry.

Israeli women take part at a Mass Breastfeeding as they gathered at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv on March 18, 2016, the idea was to promote women’s right to breastfeeding their babies in public, March 18, 2016. Photo by Tomer Neuberg/Flash90 (credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)

The survey results were compared with the first such ministry effort a decade ago and is aimed at serving as a database for decision-makers and for research in the field. The new results include the COVID-19 period.

A little more than 39% of the mothers reported that they kept their newborn beside them while being hospitalized instead of keeping them in the nursery, while 15.3% reported having the baby in their rooms during feeding hours. Most of the babies, 87.5%, were fed breast milk in the maternity ward. Only 35.9% of the mothers asked to breastfeed exclusively during their stay in the maternity ward.

Breastfeeding has increased over the previous decade from 41.4% to 62.3% today.  Some 28.7% kept their babies next to them throughout their hospitalization today its is 39.3% . However, the number of babies consuming formula in the maternity ward has increased from 67.2% a decade ago to 80.1% today, which confounds the ministry’s recommendations. More than half the babies, 58.2%, received a pacifier in the hospital.

Babies breastfed at least once rose to 92.0%, but only 15.3% are exclusively breastfed at least until the age of six months. Fully 60.6% of the mothers combined breastfeeding with formula and/or food) for six months or more, an increase from 54.8% reported in the previous survey.

Almost all mothers, 90.1%, stated that during pregnancy they intended to breastfeed, but gave a number of reasons why they did not or stopped early – they did not feel comfortable breastfeeding, suffered from pain, the baby did not gain enough weight or that they didn’t have enough milk.

Incredibly, 17.8 percent of the babies consume fast food like falafel, hamburger, pizza, burekas, malawah, jachnun, processed schnitzel or kabab before their first birthday; 14.7 percent of Jewish babies and 63.4% of Arab babies were given soft drinks before their first birthday even though it is harmful to dental health, addicting them to sugar that affects their nutritional habits and health later in life.

According to the weight distribution index in relation to height, 14.3% of Jewish babies and 19% of Arab babies risk obesity, while 3.5% of Jewish infants and 4.7% of Arab babies are already overweight or obese.

Only 50.1% of the infants received the recommend amount of vitamin D, and only 46.4% of the infants received the recommended amount of iron supplement. Almost four percent of mothers admitted that they had smoked during pregnancy, which is very dangerous to both their and their fetus’s health, and just as many non-smokers were exposed to toxic smoke at home or in the car.

The Israel Midwives Association commented that “The survey reveals a disturbing pattern of a decrease in breastfeeding along with an increase in the use of infant formula.”