It’s World Breastfeeding Awareness Week and Ireland continues to find itself with the dubious honour of having the lowest breastfeeding rates in Europe.
With just 56% of mothers breastfeeding their babies at birth, it’s clear that we’ve a long way to go to make breastfeeding a part of our cultural and societal norm.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends ‘mothers worldwide to exclusively breastfeed infants for the child’s first six months to achieve optimal growth, development and health.
Thereafter, they should be given nutritious complementary foods and continue breastfeeding up to the age of two years or beyond’. In spite of this recommendation, breastfeeding beyond the age of six months is rare in Ireland.
HSE figures suggest that only 2% of babies are still exclusively breastfed by the time they reach six months old.
My youngest child is 22 months old and still breastfed. It has never dawned on me to stop because he may be older than what’s considered a socially acceptable age. He’s my son, I’m his mother and I’m doing what I believe is best for him.
I hear plenty of comments, sometimes well intended, about it being time for me to “give up this carry on”. It’s as though some perceive me to have endured enough, when really all I’m doing is feeding my child in the manner that the WHO recommend.
During global and national breastfeeding weeks there is often reflection on our poor rates and plenty of comment about the need to improve them. What appears to be lacking however, is the necessary support to do so.
I work outside the home and I’m very fortunate that my employer supports and facilitates the continued breastfeeding of my son through the provision of fair and personally accommodating, breastfeeding breaks. The statutory entitlement to breastfeeding breaks however is a mere six months, meaning by the time most women return to the workforce following maternity leave, their entitlement has already run out.
And so the return to work, following maternity leave, for breastfeeding mums is made all the more difficult by that first hurdle.
It’s something that really needs to be revisited if Ireland is serious about improving its breastfeeding rates. But even within the utopia of breastfeeding supportive employment, there are still the less than utopian comments from unsupportive individuals to deal with.
One colleague informed me that it was disgusting to breastfeed a child beyond the age of four months. Another complained about my availing of breastfeeding breaks. One acquaintance claimed “you’re just doing it for yourself”.
As a mum of seven and a seasoned breastfeeder I wasn’t fazed by the comments, but I was disappointed. It’s difficult to understand why someone might take issue with the manner in which you feed your child.
So why exactly is there such disparity between Ireland’s relationship with breastfeeding and the views and practice of so many other wealthy nations.
Cork-based lactation consultant, Orla Dorgan (lactationtalk.com) explains that breastfeeding got a negative rap in the 1970’s.
“Large formula companies, who had big budgets performed aggressive global marketing campaigns, stating formula was better than breastmilk. This clearly influenced peoples’ perceptions and behaviours.”
A law in relation to the code of conduct governing the promotion and sale of breastmilk substitutes was brought in, in 1989, even though this was recommended in 1981 by the UN World Health Assembly, Orla says.
“But the damage was done. We need to increase our breastfeeding rates,” she said.
“Health issues like obesity are on the increase. Ireland is expected to become the most obese nation in Europe. Type 2 Diabetes is up 70% in Ireland since 1970. Cancers and cardiovascular deaths can all be minimised if babies and toddlers were breastfed,” she adds.
“The benefits of breastfeeding last for life.”
The risk of post-natal depression can be reduced when a mum breastfeeds though Orla acknowledges this is not always the case.
“Dr Nils Bergman talks about skin to skin contact and breastfeeding and secure attachments and how they can reduce the incidences of violence. There are not just health benefits to the nation. It could make it a safer place,” she adds.
Orla believes that there are many ways that breastfeeding can be normalised, including mums comfortably breastfeeding in public. She feels that advertisers using pictures of babies being breastfed rather than bottlefed when selling baby-related products could also help to normalise breastfeeding.
What she doesn’t believe helps are contrived mummy wars around breastfeeding or bottlefeeding or negative discussions and the constant flagging of negative breastfeeding experiences.
Orla says that support is very important and can come via mums and dads empowering themselves with knowledge before they have their baby and reaching out to their village prior to baby arriving.
“Having help lined up when a new mum comes home from hospital is another big plus,” she adds.
“It may not always be family but someone you feel comfortable being around. I didn’t hail from a breastfeeding family and didn’t have support when I came home from hospital, so much of my own breastfeeding journey has been about finding my feet in unfamiliar territory.
"What I do have, however, is a deep-rooted belief that breastfeeding is the best thing for me and my baby.
“That’s not to say that it’s all easy and that there haven’t been hiccups along the way, but convictions meant that I didn’t allow those hiccups to come in the shape of ill-informed colleagues or acquaintances and their ignorant comments.
And the science is there. “Breastmilk is a natural first food for a baby”, Orla says. “It provides up to half or more of a child’s nutritional needs during the second half of the first year and up to one-third during the second year.
It promotes sensory and cognitive development and protects the infant against infectious and chronic diseases. In fact a natural weaning age for humans is between six months to five years according to the Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine,” she explains.
“The composition of breastmilk changes with the baby’s needs. They will still continue to benefit from the protein, vitamins, fat, calcium and other nutrients.
Babies continue to get the immunological properties of breastmilk and studies have shown, the immune factors increase in concentration in the second year of breastfeeding. Even though baby may nurse less, it is more dense in nutrition and immunity properties. Babies who breastfeed for longer have less risk of illnesses.
#Breastfeeding benefits economies, by helping to lower health care costs, increase educational attainment & ultimately, boost productivity.— Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus (@DrTedros) August 2, 2017
For mum extended breastfeeding and breastfeeding for 12 months or more cumulatively in life has being shown to reduce the risk of ovarian cancer, uterine cancer, endometrial cancer, breast cancer, Type 2 Diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis and heart disease,” she adds.
As for the claim that mums who breastfeed beyond a certain timeframe don’t want to let go, Orla says:
“Babies will not breastfeed if they don’t want to. If they are looking to breastfeed they are getting benefit, be it emotional or nutritional. It is where babies feel safe and secure. Mothers’ gut instinct will always guide them to do what’s right and if their baby is happily feeding and it’s working for them, why would you stop it?”
So onwards we go, towards a rapidly approaching second birthday. When exactly we’ll stop – I don’t know, but I do know it will be when my baby and I are ready. In the meantime, I’m just like most mums - doing my best and hoping for a little support along the way.