New study to benefit pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers

Pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers are set to benefit from the first study of its kind in the UK. Researchers at the Highlands and Islands Health Research Institute (HIHRI) will undertake a three-year study, which is being funded from £500,000 worth of awards from the Scottish Executive Health Department (SEHD) Chief Scientist Office.

Breastfeeding reduces childhood gastro-intestinal, respiratory, urine and ear infections. It helps to prevent wheeze, diabetes and obesity in children and reduces hip fracture, breast and ovarian cancers in women. However, breastfeeding rates in Scotland are amongst the lowest in Europe and increasing them could produce significant savings for the NHS.

The BIG (Breastfeeding in Groups) Trial is a Scotland-wide study to evaluate the clinical and cost effectiveness of breastfeeding support groups in improving breastfeeding initiation, duration and satisfaction. The trial will begin this summer and is being funded by the SEHD to the tune of £209,603 over three years.

Peer support for breastfeeding is currently recommended in policy documents and is popular, yet systematic reviews reveal little evidence of effectiveness in countries like Scotland with low breastfeeding initiation. The funding which has been awarded will enable the first randomised controlled trial of breastfeeding support groups and will evaluate their effectiveness in increasing breastfeeding at 6-8 weeks using routinely collected data. Survey methodology will be used for maternal satisfaction and cost-effectiveness. Implementation processes will be examined using a qualitative case study approach.

Scotland is uniquely placed to host this research as it routinely collects Child Health Surveillance Programme and Guthrie breastfeeding data.

Dr Pat Hoddinott, Clinical Research Fellow, Highlands and Islands Health Research Institute, who is leading the study, said: "Breastfeeding is a practical skill which like other practical skills is best learnt through experience. The breastfeeding groups are being set up for women to share experiences about breastfeeding and help each other.

"Health visitors and midwives will facilitate the groups and provide professional expertise where needed. The groups will be weekly and women will be encouraged to drop in for a cup of coffee and a chat. Many women find the first few weeks breastfeeding a new baby challenging. By inviting them to come to the group when they are pregnant, we hope that they will feel better prepared and build supportive friendships within the group which will help them."

The research is a collaborative project between HIHRI, Public Health and the Health Economics Research Unit (HERU), at the University of Aberdeen, and the Paediatric Epidemiology and Child Health Unit (PEACH) and Midwifery, at Glasgow University.

Seven areas consisting of several general practices from different parts of Scotland will set up breastfeeding peer support groups while seven other areas will act as controls over two years. Around four to six thousand pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers will have access to the groups if they choose.

In addition to funding for this study, Dr Hoddinott, who is also a general practitioner, has been awarded a personal primary care research award from the Chief Scientist Office over the next five years. This award will enable Dr Hoddinott to expand her programme of research into how breastfeeding initiation, duration and maternal satisfaction with breastfeeding experience can be improved in Scotland.

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