Policy failure leaves families struggling to provide babies with vital nutrients in early months of life


Policy failure leaves families struggling to provide babies with vital nutrients in early months of life – report from The Food Foundation 

The Food Foundation has today published in-depth analysis revealing a flawed system in which parents face multiple barriers to provide babies with the basic nutrients needed for development before the age of two.

A briefing on barriers to breastfeeding and a report on the cost of baby formula reveal that whether breastfeeding or reliant on formula, caregivers are being forced to make difficult decisions about how to provide the basics for their babies.

The Breaking Down the Barriers to Breastfeeding briefing, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, Impact on Urban Health and AIM Foundation, and including data provided by YouGov, found that:

  • 44% of women who reported to have exclusively breastfed would have liked to exclusively breastfeed for longer   
  • Factors that would have helped them to breastfeed for longer include: more support from healthcare professionals (42%), higher maternity pay/more financial support (28%), longer maternity leave (22%), more support from family and friends (22%) and more places to feed a baby in public (21%)  
  • Of those mothers who formula fed, one in four (26%) said they struggled to afford formula 

The early years are a critical period for providing children with good nutrition to protect their future health, but for many families this is an ongoing challenge.

Previous Food Foundation research found that 27% of households with a child under the age of four experienced food insecurity in June 2023.

Providing a supportive environment for women to breastfeed is critical, as is ensuring first infant formula is affordable for those who need it.

As the cost of living crisis continues and many families continue to experience food insecurity, it is more important than ever that we take steps to provide children with the best start to life.   

With nearly half of women who exclusively breastfed reporting that they would have liked to do so for longer, the new report clearly demonstrates the importance of addressing the barriers faced by women who want to breastfeed.

No mother should be in a situation where she wants to breastfeed but does not have the support to do so.  

A range of barriers to breastfeeding exist, from insufficient health professional support to financial challenges when on maternity leave.

For instance, according to the Institute of Health Visiting, the number of health visitors has decreased by over a third since 2015.

At the same time, the UK is one of the worst performing OECD countries for maternity leave and pay provisions and 58% of women in a survey by Maternity Action reported to return to work early for financial reasons.

Furthermore, there are a range of wider social challenges and marginalisation of breastfeeding, at least in part as the result of formula marketing.

The marketing of formula, particularly follow-on milks and toddler milks, is highly pervasive as a result of weak legislation and monitoring – a survey commissioned by WHO and UNICEF found that 85% of pregnant women in the UK had reported seeing or hearing formula milk marketing.

The Food Foundation shows that these barriers, in many cases, stem from insufficient government action and political will to create supportive environments.

For instance, there is no national breastfeeding strategy, poor maternity provisions such as maternity pay and maternity leave, limited data on breastfeeding to support targeted intervention, and insufficient funding to enable local authorities and health visitors and midwives to deliver adequate support to mothers and families. 

The Food Foundation has also today published a briefing on the cost of formula as part of its Kids Food Guarantee programme showing that families who do use formula are struggling to feed their babies adequately as a result of soaring prices soaring.

Manufacturers of formula have come under fire in recent months following the publication of the findings of an inquiry conducted by the Competition Markets Authority (CMA).

The inquiry showed that manufacturers have been elevating the price of formula by a greater amount than was necessary to cover inflated input costs, and therefore have maintained high profit margins while many parents across the country have reported struggling to afford this essential for their babies.

There is currently no brand of first infant formula which is affordable with the Healthy Start scheme’s weekly funding, the government support available to pregnant women and low-income parents with babies.

The CMA are currently conducting a more in-depth investigation into formula prices and recommendations on actions to be taken are expected later in 2024.  

Evidence shows that when faced with financial difficulties, parents can be forced to turn to unsafe feeding practices, such as watering down formula, increasing the time between feeds and substituting formula with other milks which are not appropriate for the age of the infant.

These strategies are all part of desperate efforts to make an inadequate quantity of formula stretch further but may result in babies receiving insufficient calories and nutrition to properly grow and develop.

The government needs to do more to recognise infant feeding as a critical issue, and as a tool to improve long term health outcomes in the UK.

More action is needed to support the early years, whether it be through making breastfeeding easier for longer or ensuring formula is available and affordable for those who need it.

The Food Foundation is calling for policy makers to:

  • Invest in breastfeeding services and support, such as increasing investment in the training of health visitors and midwives to deliver effective breastfeeding support and enhancing the number and quality of mandatory face to face contacts between mothers and health visitors.
  • Provide more financial support for new parents, including increasing maternity pay to align with the national minimum/living wage, extending the eligibility of Healthy Start to all families in receipt of Universal Credit and introducing auto-enrolment to ensure all those eligible benefit and increase the value of the vouchers in line with inflation.
  • Enhance protections against inappropriate marketing of breastmilk substitutes

The Food Foundation is calling for businesses to:

  • Introduce own-brand first infant formulas 
  • Insulate prices on first infant formula from the worst of food price inflation

Hannah Brinsden, Head of Policy and Advocacy at The Food Foundation, said: "It is shocking that in this day and age policy makers are still failing to support families to be able to provide the basics for vulnerable new born babies.

"The early years are so crucial to a child’s healthy development- and this is well evidenced. Policy makers need to take action now to ensure every baby can be safely fed and looked after."


Please contact: Juliet Grant on 07929075489 or email juliet.grant@foodfoundation.org.uk


Dr Hannah Brinsden, Head of Policy and Advocacy, The Food Foundation

Twitter/X: @Food_Foundation 
Instagram: food.foundation

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The Food Foundation is an independent charity working to influence food policy and business practice, shaping a sustainable food system which makes healthy diets affordable and accessible for all. We work in partnership with researchers, campaigners, community bodies, industry, investors, government and citizens to galvanise the UK’s diverse agents of change, using surprising and inventive ideas to drive fundamental shifts in our food system. These efforts are based on the continual re-evaluation of opportunities for action, building and synthesising strong evidence, convening powerful coalitions, harnessing citizens’ voices and delivering impactful communications. We are independent of all political parties and businesses, and we are not limited by a single issue or special interest. 
Registered Charity Number 1187611.

The Nuffield Foundation is an independent charitable trust with a mission to advance social well-being. It funds research that informs social policy, primarily in Education, Welfare, and Justice. The Nuffield Foundation is the founder and co-funder of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, the Ada Lovelace Institute and the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory. The Foundation has funded this project, but the views expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily the Foundation.

Impact on Urban Health is a part of Guy’s & St Thomas' Foundation, and is committed to achieving health equity by helping urban areas become healthier places for everyone to live.

AIM is a family foundation that works to increase the understanding of the importance of nutrition for our health and wellbeing.

The Barriers to Breastfeeding report uses data provided by YouGov. Total sample size was 506 mothers of children age 18 months or less. Fieldwork was undertaken between 11th - 19th January 2024. The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted by age and region of live births in the UK.

When referring to breastfeeding in the Barriers to Breastfeeding report, the words ‘women’, ‘mothers’ and ‘breastfeeding’ are used because most people who feed their babies this way identify as women. However, we recognise that not all people who breastfeed or chestfeed identify as women.

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