Breastfeeding rates up but North/South gap widens

Breastfeeding rates in Ireland are increasing steadily, but the gap between North and South is getting wider.

A new all-island report from the Institute of Public Health in Ireland also found breastfeeding rates in both jurisdictions decline steeply in the early weeks after birth.

IPH director of policy Helen McAvoy said rates of starting breastfeeding had increased in the last 10 years.

However, Northern Ireland had started from a lower point than the Republic, and the gap between North and South had widened.

Breastfeeding rates at discharge from hospital increased from 49% to 58% between 2006 and 2015 in the Republic.

However, just under 54% of babies were still receiving breast milk a few days later when the public health nurse visited their homes. At three months, just over a third (35%) of babies were still receiving breast milk.

The Institute of Public Health, an all-island body, supports co-operation on public health North and South.

The report says mothers in Ireland are the least likely of all nationalities to start breastfeeding.

Between 2006 and 2015 in Northern Ireland, breastfeeding rates at discharge increased by 5% — from 40% to 45%. However, just over one in five (21%) babies were receiving some breast milk at three months.

Younger mothers and those from a lower socio-economic group in both jurisdictions were less likely to breastfeed.

Older mothers and those from higher socio-economic groups were the most likely to start breastfeeding and continue with it.

Dr McAvoy said breastfeeding rates made a significant contribution to population health. Breastfeeding protected babies and contributed to maternal health.

The Health Service Executive wants 38% of all babies to be breastfed at three months of age between now and 2021.

In Northern Ireland, it is envisaged 40% of babies will be breastfeeding, at six months, by 2025.

Breastfeeding mothers in Northern Ireland (42%) were the least likely to have breastfed their baby in public compared to mothers from Scotland (60%), England (59%) and Wales (52%).

However, data from Northern Ireland suggest public attitudes to breastfeeding were improving.

The report states many women North and South would have like to have breastfed for longer and that the focus must be on creating a more breastfeeding supportive environment.

Minister of State for Health Promotion, Catherine Byrne said that her department had commissioned research from the Health Research Board to look at other countries where breastfeeding rates had increased recently and assess what practical measures Ireland needed to take to achieve similar increases.

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