The study, published in the Archives of Childhood Disease found that longer breastfeeding was linked to a lower risk of breast cancer in the mother and gastrointestinal, respiratory and ear infections in children. Treating these infections is estimated to cost the NHS £89 million a year, while maternal breast cancer treatment costs approximately £959 million.
The study argues that if 21 per cent of mothers exclusively breastfed for up to four months, it could save the health service £4 million in GP and hospital bills, and if the proportion rose to 45 per cent, £11 million could be saved. Currently only seven per cent of mothers continue to breastfeed at four months, despite 81 per cent of mothers exclusively breastfeeding immediately after birth.
The study's authors said: 'Our study should reassure policymakers, service planners and commissioners that a rapid return on investment is realistic and feasible, supported by cost savings that can be realised in the first year of infants' lives.'
The authors also note that the results do not indicate that more women should be persuaded to breastfeed. Rather, women who breastfeed should be encouraged to extend the duration of breastfeeding. They point out that this means actively supporting them with accessible high-quality services. 'This is very important because national statistics indicate that 80 per cent of women who stop breastfeeding in the early weeks would have liked to have breastfed for longer,' the authors added.
Rosemary Dodds, senior policy adviser at the National Childbirth Trust said: 'It's frustrating that so many women who want to breastfeed struggle because of a lack of support.'