Breast milk can give babies natural pain killers, aids to sleep and immune support. Picture: Public Domain Pictures

London - Two-thirds of people believe there is no difference between breast and formula milk, a study has found.

This lack of knowledge of the benefits of breast milk, as well as a negative attitude towards nursing in public, means some developed countries like the UK has one of the lowest breastfeeding rates in the world, a documentary will reveal.

This is despite experts stressing that there are hundreds of nutrients in breast milk that cannot be replicated artificially.

And it can give babies natural pain killers, aids to sleep and immune support.

Dr Simon Cameron, of Imperial College London, told Channel 4’s Dispatches: "What human milk has done is evolved to really meet the needs of a newborn infant. It is something that we just cannot… replicate in the lab."

Dr Cameron and his colleagues have pinpointed thousands of different types of fats that are beneficial for baby.

One of these, arachidonic acid, breaks down into products called endocannabinoids, which provide a natural pain-killing mechanism.

Another crucial component of breast milk is the microbiome, a cluster of naturally occurring bacteria essential for providing the building blocks for normal health and priming the immune system.

Human milk may also help to protect children against obesity, diabetes and cancer in later life.

Sue Ashmore, of the Unicef UK Baby Friendly Initiative: "Because we’re such a bottle-feeding culture, if you have problems the answer tends to be to bottle-feed. I think it has a lot of implications for long-term health. You get increased rates of cancer, you get increased obesity when babies are not breastfed. So it is a major public health crisis."

However, research in 2016 found that 40 percent of women stop breastfeeding after six weeks because they felt judged.

Professor Amy Brown, of Swansea University, said: "The statistics show that you have one group of women who has a bad experience, so someone will say something to them in public.

"But then for the much larger group, it’s the fear that they will – so that underlying worry that someone is going to do something. It makes them so tense that they just can’t do it anymore."

Presenter Kate Quilton, who breastfed in various public places for the show, spoke about feeling "like a social outcast and a leper".

She said: "You get lots of raised eyebrows, a few people tutting?… whispers. Seems totally bonkers."

Dispatches: Breastfeeding Uncovered airs at 8pm tonight on Channel 4.

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