Both observational and recent experimental evidence support the promotion of breastfeeding as the optimal form of infant nutrition. There is, however, uncertainty as to the most effective way of providing support to women who choose to breastfeed their children. A systematic review was performed to describe studies undertaken in this area and to assess the effectiveness of supplementary support.
The objective of this review was to assess the effects of breastfeeding support.
We searched the Cochrane Pregnancy and Childbirth Group trials register, the Cochrane Controlled Trials Register, MEDLINE and EMBASE. These were last searched in March 2001. Secondary references were searched and researchers in the field were contacted.
Controlled trials of acceptable quality comparing extra support for breastfeeding mothers with usual maternity care.
Data collection and analysis
Data were extracted by one reviewer and checked by a second reviewer.
Twenty eligible randomised or quasi-randomised controlled trials from 10 countries were identified involving 23,712 mother-infant pairs. There was a beneficial effect on the duration of any breastfeeding in the meta-analysis of all forms of extra support (relative risk (RR) for stopping any breastfeeding before six months 0.88 [95% confidence interval (CI) 0.81,0.95]; 15 trials, 21,910 women). The effect was greater for exclusive breastfeeding (RR 0.78 [95% CI 0.69,0.89]; 11 trials, 20,788 women). Extra professional support appeared beneficial for any breastfeeding (RR 0.89 [95% CI 0.81,0.97]; 10 trials, 19,696 women) and for exclusive breastfeeding (RR 0.90 [95% confidence interval 0.81,1.01]; six trials, 18,258 women) although the latter effect did not achieve full statistical significance. Lay support was effective in reducing the cessation of exclusive breastfeeding (RR 0.66 [95% CI 0.49,0.89]; five trials, 2530 women) but its effect on any breastfeeding did not reach statistical significance (RR 0.84 [95% CI 0.69,1.02]; five trials, 2224 women). Professional support in the largest trial to assess health outcomes produced a significant reduction in the risk of gastro-intestinal infections and atopic eczema. In two trials with children suffering from diarrhoeal illness extra support was highly effective in increasing short term exclusive breastfeeding rates and reducing recurrence of diarrhoea.
Consideration should be given to providing supplementary breastfeeding support as part of routine health service provision. There is clear evidence for the effectiveness of professional support on the duration of any breastfeeding although the strength of its effect on the rate of exclusive breastfeeding is uncertain. Lay support is effective in promoting exclusive breastfeeding while the strength of its effect on the duration of any breastfeeding is also uncertain. Evidence supports the promotion of exclusive breastfeeding as central to the management of diarrhoeal illness in partially breastfed infants.
Further trials are required to assess the effectiveness (including cost-effectiveness) of both lay and professional support in different settings - in particular in those communities with low rates of breastfeeding initiation. Research is also required into the most appropriate training for those, whether lay or professional, who support breastfeeding mothers.