Just 56% of Irish women breastfeed their children

With just 56% of women in Ireland breastfeeding, advocates want to raise awareness about unethical marketing practices in the infant feeding industry, writes Jen Hogan

A standing ovation and rapturous applause greeted Syed Aamir Raza, as he joined the panel of experts, following a recent private screening of the emotive and powerful movie Tigers.

Tigers, based on the true story of Mr Raza, a former baby-milk salesman from Pakistan, tells how he took on the industry with the help of Baby Milk Action and the International Baby Food Action Network when he realised babies were dying as a result of his work encouraging doctors to promote and prescribe formula.

The screening, organised by the Baby Feeding Law Group Ireland (BFLGI), was attended by staunch advocate of breastfeeding Sabina Higgins, and was followed by a panel discussion with experts in the field. Operation Transformation’s dietician, Aoife Hearne, herself a member of BFLGI, hosted the event.

The screening was arranged “to raise public awareness about implications of unethical marketing practices in the context of infant feeding” Hearne explains, while the event itself allowed for discussions on the value of implementing the World Health Organisation (WHO) code in Irish policy and legislation, in order to improve outcomes for mothers and children.

“Our breastfeeding rates are very low in Ireland in comparison to many of our EU neighbours. There are a variety of factors but one element is the influence of marketing,” Hearne said, adding that “according to the WHO, companies have invented a whole range of products that target the older baby, just to expand the market that is already worth an estimated $70 billion each year”.

We have been sold the idea that it’s an equal choice between choosing to breastfeed or formula feeding — this couldn’t be further from the truth...but this is marketing. Breastmilk is a superior substance and I say that not to put pressure on women to make them feel guilty but to demonstrate what an amazing resource we have and how this can be used to empower women

Panelist Patti Rundall, (Baby Milk Action UK) explained how the introduction of the WHO code in 1981 was “the first tool from a UN agency that tackled marketing”.

“The code was the first time that we had a tool that everybody can use. You can go into a hospital and say, ‘hey, you’re doing this wrong. You’re not allowed to do this’.”

The code, which is updated regularly, is “a recommendation”, Rundall explains. “It would have been a regulation from the world’s highest health policy setting body, but the US blocked it and the US has blocked it practically all the time except during the Clinton era and Obama. But with Trump now, we’re back again with total attack on the code.”

“It’s essential” Rundall adds “not to listen to what companies tell you” but to “look at what they actually do”.

The last line of the movie “It’s an old story, that’s still alive, and keeps repeating itself” resonated with Professor Donal O’Shea, HSE clinical lead for obesity. “Marketing causing death is exactly what’s happening throughout the lifespan,” he says. “It’s not confined to infant formula and we have to acknowledge that.”

Dr Cathal McCrory, research assistant professor, TCD, explained how the “Growing up in Ireland” study revealed that just 56% of women in Ireland breastfed. The comparative figures in the UK were approximately 75%, while the Scandinavian countries reached figures in the high nineties.

The main reason given for non-initiation of breastfeeding was that “formula feeding is preferable”.

“The heavy advertising and marketing of breastmilk substitutes in Ireland (television, sponsorship of baby fairs etc) very likely contributes to this,” he said.

“Breastmilk substitutes are frequently advertised as being enhanced with nutrients that promote infant development but these substances already occur naturally in mother’s milk, as do many more that have not yet been synthesised.

“More should be done therefore, to promote breastfeeding as the optimal and biologically normal method of infant feeding, and to emphasise its role as a nutritional superfood for the developing child.”

McCrory also addressed the rapid drop-off rates of those who initially chose to breastfeed, as revealed in the study. “Almost half of those who started breastfeeding stopped because of concerns that the child was not getting enough milk or because of inconvenience/fatigue.

If we can intervene very early on and give women additional support during that very early stage of breastfeeding we can really boost our breastfeeding rates and how long women are breastfeeding for

The HSE’s national breastfeeding co-ordinator, Laura McHugh conceded that “we’re not anywhere near” reaching the 10% increase set out in the National Breastfeeding five-year action plan. “The plan hasn’t been funded as well as we would like,” she said, pointing out the variation between rates in South Dublin versus Donegal, and the drop-off rate following discharge from hospital. “The formula and the marketing practice there, has a lot to say about that,” she added.

Professor Roy Philip (consultant neonatologist and paediatrician, University of Limerick hospitals) explained how through a collective approach in the hospital, extremely low birthweight babies “have had 100% exposure to breastmilk” for the last five years. Philip says it is very important to continue and build on this achievement because otherwise “we are becoming a society which is primarily depending on the lactation of another species for survival”.

“Colostrum, the first milk, is the first vaccine. The first vaccine developed in the world — by nature, given to us by nature. Make sure you use it.”

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