About 10,000 fewer young children a year would require hospital treatment if more women breastfed their babies, a charity says today.
Increased breastfeeding would save the NHS £40m, it is claimed.
Breast milk gives babies the best start in life, boosting their immune systems and providing protection from infections, but many women give up after a few weeks because they are not getting the support they need. The UK has one of the lowest breastfeeding rates in the world in terms of duration. More than four out of five women start breastfeeding but fewer than half are still doing so at six weeks, according to Unicef UK.
Calculations based on five illnesses show that increased breastfeeding could have a dramatic impact on the nation's health.
Breast milk is thought to provide protection against over 50 illnesses in baby and adulthood. No other foodstuff can ward off gastroenteritis, respiratory illness and ear infections – to name but three - to the same degree.
But babies are getting too little of it for too short a time. Six months is the recommended length of breastfeeding but only 25 per cent of babies are still breastfed by that milestone. Although more than 80 per cent of mothers start breastfeeding the figure drops to 48 per cent at six weeks.
The Unicef report suggests that if the level at six weeks could be maintained for a longer period of four months - a threefold increase which the report describes as "moderate"– there would be over 3,000 fewer hospital admissions of babies with gastroenteritis and almost 6,000 fewer admissions with respiratory illness.
In addition, there would be over 50,000 fewer GP consultations. Mothers would also protect themselves, as breastfeeding reduces the risk of breast cancer.
Anita Tiessen, deputy director of Unicef UK, said: "We know that 90 per cent of women who stop breastfeeding in the first six weeks discontinued before they had wanted to. As a society we are failing mothers and babies. Low breastfeeding rates in the UK are costing the NHS millions of pounds each year as well as causing untold distress and suffering for families."
Campaigns to boost breastfeeding have lifted the proportion of mothers who start. But figures to be released soon are expected to show no significant increase in the numbers continuing to breastfeed beyond the early weeks since the last survey in 2005.
The report says care is patchy across the NHS and a lack of support means many breastfeeding mothers give up when they encounter problems instead of persevering.
Ms Tiessen said: "We want to see breastfeeding recognised as a major public health issue from government level through to local children's centres, and appropriate investment and legislation put in place to give mothers a better experience. The good news is that our research shows money invested to help women breastfeed for longer would provide a rapid financial return."
Professor Mike Kelly, director of the Centre for Public Health Excellence at NICE, said breastfeeding offered an opportunity to tackle two of the NHS's most pressing challenges – reducing health inequalities and saving cash.
"In a nutshell, it promises to do both," he said. "The idea is simplicity itself." Sue Ashmore, Unicef UK baby friendly director, said a change of approach was needed to remove barriers to breastfeeding with greater support for mothers.
"We want breastfeeding to become unremarkable, something that we see mothers doing all around us every day, so that breastfeeding skills are passed on socially," she said.
Rosie Dodds, from the National Childbirth Trust, said: "We support all parents however they feed their baby. However, nine out of 10 mothers who stop breastfeeding in the first six weeks stop before they wanted to."
Case study: With good support I breast fed for 13 months
Charlotte Harvey, mother of Malachi, 3, and Elijah, 11 months.
"Malachi was delivered by emergency caesarean section at 35 weeks and taken to the intensive care unit where he was fed infant formula through a tube into his stomach. I was put on a ward with him after 24 hours and soon after put him to the breast.
"Unfortunately every three hours a different midwife or nurse would come and tell me to attach [him] a different way in a different position. This ended with me and the baby becoming very distressed.
"We could see that Malachi was tongue tied [a birth defect in which a tight piece of skin under the tongue holds it to the floor of the mouth] but were repeatedly told it would not affect breast feeding. However, he couldn't latch on.
"It was only after we were discharged that the health visitor referred us to have the tongue tie snipped. She provided lots of support and advice and I successfully breast fed for 13 months. When Elijah arrived the midwives were lovely but gave no breastfeeding support at all, assuming I would just get on with it being a second timer. It's amazing how rusty I was.
"After about 10 days, breastfeeding wasn't getting any more comfortable and I was very sore. Eventually Elijah had the [same] separating procedure done, though he was not as badly affected as Malachi. The health visitor continued to provide support until breast feeding him became second nature again and pain free."