Calls for review of Northern Ireland breastfeeding figures over incorrect data concerns
Health professionals are not properly recording breastfeeding rates in Northern Ireland, which are said to be the worst in the UK.
It has emerged that some health visitors are incorrectly recording the data as they believe a baby is no longer exclusively breastfed once they begin to eat solids - normally at six months old.
The situation means it is likely that breastfeeding rates in Northern Ireland are not as low as official records suggest.
According to official figures, less than half of women were breastfeeding their babies when they left hospital in 2015, while only 7% of babies here were exclusively breastfed until six months.
Alliance Party MLA Paula Bradshaw has called for a review of the way the statistics are collated to ensure the figures are as accurate as possible.
Every baby born in Northern Ireland is allocated a red book, where vital information including birth weight, results of health screening tests and how a baby is fed, is recorded throughout their childhood. The information helps health professionals track development and identify any potential problems.
Health visitors are expected to ascertain and record during routine health reviews whether a baby is being totally or partially breastfed, or whether they are entirely formula fed.
However, problems are arising when health visitors incorrectly believe that babies over six months old are only being partially breastfed as they are also eating food.
One mum said: "My little girl turned one in October and the health visitor was out with us for our one-year review and marked down in the red book that she was only partially breastfed.
"I was absolutely gutted, I know it might sound silly to a lot of people but we have worked so hard to keep breastfeeding this long and it meant so much to me to have it officially recognised in the red book.
"Breastfeeding is the best thing I have ever done, I am so proud of myself and my daughter, that we have made it this far, but it has also been one of the hardest things I have ever done."
The Public Health Agency (PHA), which leads on the promotion of breastfeeding in Northern Ireland, is aware of the problem.
It has been working with trusts to address the situation but some health visitors are still incorrectly recording breastfeeding rates from six months.
Ms Bradshaw said: "I believe this scenario could easily be resolved with the redesign of that section of the red book.
"This change process could and should include input from mothers and better reflect the eating and drinking intake of infants. This, in turn, will allow health professionals to better understand the child's growth and development as part of the full range of information contained in the red book."
Meanwhile, Sure Start coordinator Seana Talbot said it is important the issue is addressed.
"Advice from the World Health Organization recommends that babies are exclusively breastfed up to six months of age, with continued breastfeeding along with appropriate complementary foods up to two years of age or beyond," she said.
"However, breastfeeding rates in Northern Ireland are lower than in similar countries and women who do breastfeed need to be supported and celebrated."
A spokesman from the Public Health Agency (PHA) said the organisation works with the Community Infant Feeding Leads in each of the trusts to advise health visitors on the correct recording of breastfeeding using the official definitions.
"At six months and onwards it should be recorded that a baby is 'totally breastfeeding' if breastmilk is the only milk element of a weaning diet," he added.
"The PHA welcomes feedback from breastfeeding mums on their experiences and will work with our colleagues to ensure correct recording procedures are adhered to."
Anyone seeking more information about breastfeeding can visit www.breastfedbabies.org