Babies born at home are more likely to be breastfed, study shows

18 August 2016

Mothers are more likely to start breast feeding their babies and keep going if they give birth at home, according to research drawing on the Millennium Cohort Study (MCS).

The authors, from Trinity College Dublin, Edinburgh and Zagreb, compared 17,521 UK mothers taking part in MCS with 10,604 from the Growing Up in Ireland study. Around two thirds of all the mothers surveyed started breast feeding, with a fifth continuing for six months. In the Republic of Ireland sample, 9 per cent of infants were breast fed exclusively for six months; 1 per cent in MCS.

One per cent of the Irish births took place at home, and 2 per cent in the UK. Women who were advised to have their babies in hospital because of risks to their and their babies’ health were not included in the analysis.

The study found children born at home were twice as likely to be breast fed. They were also more likely to be breast fed at eight weeks and six months. The association remains even after mothers’ education and length of pregnancy are taken into account.

Research has linked breastfeeding to a range of positive outcomes, leading the World Health Organisation, the NHS, midwives and paediatricians to urge mothers to try to breast feed their infants. Studies drawing on cohort data found breast feeding was associated with better cognitive functioning in children, with positive effects extending into adult life. Fewer babies would have to go into hospital with chest infections or diarrhoea if all were breastfed. Women who themselves were breast fed tend to feel happier.

The association between home birth and duration of breast feeding is especially interesting in light of previous MCS research showing those breast fed for four months or longer tend to be better behaved at age 5.

The authors suggest children born at home might be breast fed because – in the Irish case – mothers get more attention from midwives. In hospital, “multiple health professionals are involved potentially providing inconsistent input”.

Giving birth at home may reduce stress, helping mother-infant bonding. Use of pain relief in labour is ‘common in hospital but rare in home birth’, which is relevant because painkillers can delay milk production.

In 1960 in England one in three mothers gave birth at home. Hospital births grew to be nearly universal in the 1970s and 1980s and only recently has the figure for home births risen a little, to one in 50 in 2013.

Read the full paper

Association between home birth and breast feeding outcomes: a cross-sectional study in 28,125 mother-infant pairs from Ireland and the UK by Clare Quigley, Cristina Taut, Tamara Zigman, Louise Gallagher, Harry Campbell and Lina Zgaga BMJ Open July 2016.

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