The risk of a raft of diseases in mothers and their babies can be reduced through breastfeeding, including breast cancer, respiratory diseases, stomach upsets and ear infections.
Britain has one of the lowest breastfeeding rates in Western Europe with a third of women never feeding naturally, a third feeding for up to six months of their lifetime which may be spread across two or three children and one in six feeding for between seven and 18 months.
If the number of women who breastfeed for up to 18 months of their life increased from half to to two thirds, then there would be 865 fewer cases of breast cancer over their lifetime, it was calculated.
The report from Unicef found that only taking the benefits for a handful of conditions would mean the NHS could save £40m a year.
The report said if 45 per cent of babies were exclusively breastfed for four months, and if three quarters of babies in neonatal units were breastfed at discharge, each year there would be; 3,285 fewer babies admitted to hospital with gastroenteritis and 10,637 fewer GP consultations, saving more than £3.6 million.
The increase would also result in 5,916 fewer babies admitted to hospital with respiratory illness, and 22,248 fewer GP consultations, saving around £6.7 million.
There would also be 21,045 fewer GP visits for ear infection, saving £750,000 and 361 fewer cases of the potentially fatal disease necrotising enterocolitis, saving more than £6 million.
Anita Tiessen, Deputy Executive Director of Unicef UK, said: “As a society we are failing mothers and babies, and this new report shows that 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.
“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 of breastfeeding.
"The good news for commissioners is that our research shows that money invested to help women breastfeed for longer would provide a rapid financial return.
“Enabling women to breastfeed for as long as they choose is a health issue where the interests of the mother, baby and health service all align.”
The report, entitled Preventing Disease and Saving Resources: potential contribution of increasing breastfeeding rates in the UK, was carried out academics at Universities of Dundee, Oxford, York, Brunel and St George’s, University of London, as well as the National Childbirth Trust.
The team also calculated that boosting the number of babies who receive any breastmilk by one per cent could lead to an increase in average IQ of the population, increasing productivity by £278m a year.
Cot deaths and childhood obesity could also be reduced and increasing breastfeeding may have an impact on diabetes, heart disease, ovarian cancer, asthma, leukaemia, coeliac disease and sepsis rates in babies, although the data is not robust enough to calculate the exact effect for these disease, the report said.
Professor Mary Renfrew, from Dundee University, who led the group, said: “This research shines a spotlight on the profound protective effects which breastfeeding has on both mother and child.
“It shows that the NHS could save money in different ways, both from the immediate costs of treating acute infant diseases, and longer term savings from reduced incidence of breast cancer. Larger scale savings from chronic diseases are also likely, although the evidence was not in form required for calculating costs. There would also be considerable health gains for both mothers and babies.
“It is clear that putting resources into supporting women to breastfeed successfully would be hugely cost effective to the NHS, as well as preventing the distress and pain felt by a mother who has a bad experience of breastfeeding.”
Cathy Warwick, chief executive of the Royal College of Midwives, said: “This report adds weight to the arguments that have been made for many years; investing in supporting breastfeeding can have positive impacts on the health of mothers and their babies. This is also a very good example of the fact that delivering the highest quality care does not mean increasing cost, indeed it can save money.
“We know, because women tell us, that many of them do not get the support and help they need in the early postnatal period from midwives. There are many strategies that can be put in place to improve breast feeding rates including increasing support from other women.
“However, if we are to deliver both the potential health and economic benefits that increased breast feeding will bring, we must ensure there are enough midwives and trained support workers to give women the help and advice they need throughout and beyond pregnancy.”
Health Minister Dr Dan Poulter said: "I welcome the UNICEF report. Breastfeeding has huge health benefits, as well as benefits in helping to promote a strong bond between mum and baby. We recommend babies are breastfed for the first six months where possible.
"Breastfeeding rates in England have steadily increased over recent years, and we are doing everything we can to support women who choose to breastfeed.
"We have pledged to have an extra 4,200 health visitors by 2015. Health visitors support new mums and help them get through any problems they are having with breastfeeding."
Rebecca Smith Telegraph.co.uk