Finding a solution to Ireland's breastfeeding problem

Ireland has one of the lowest breastfeeding rates in the world. As we mark National Breastfeeding Week, Jen Hogan discovers how donor milk could be an option for struggling mothers.
Finding a solution to Ireland's breastfeeding problem

It’s National Breastfeeding Week. We know the mantra, but in spite of the World Health Organisation’s recommendations,

Ireland continues to languish in its unenviable position at bottom of the European leader board when it comes to breastfeeding rates.

It may be the most natural thing in the world, but that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily the easiest. Mother of two Sonya Quinn encountered significant difficulties on her first breastfeeding journey.

“I didn’t actually attend any breastfeeding classes,” Sonya explains. “I naively thought that baby would be born, I’d hold them and sure it would be natural and instinctual, that we’d just breastfeed and that would be it.”

Following a difficult birth, Sonya remained determined to breastfeed. She initially had difficulties latching her baby on and keeping him on. As her nipples became sore and bruised, she began to dread breastfeeds.

“A few times I asked if he could be tounge-tied as I’d noticed my nipples were a lipstick shape after a feed, but that was dismissed. Not wanting to give up breastfeeding I kept going with clenching my jaw and feeding my baby and holding back tears when people were around and letting them fall freely when they weren’t.”

Two weeks after James’ birth, Sonya became concerned that James still wasn’t back to his birth weight. “It didn’t cross my mind that my body wouldn’t make enough milk. I’d read somewhere that your body would make what your baby needed.

“I remember seeing milk spilling from his mouth thinking, well it can’t be me — look there’s lots of milk. In reality it was tongue tie causing him to not actually latch and seal his mouth to the breast, so the milk was running out.”

After engaging the services of a lactation consultant, Sonya discovered she had insufficient glandular tissue on one breast. Because the other breast was fine, Sonya hoped to be able to produce enough milk. However, because James had been tongue tied, he had not been able to extract all the milk he needed and her breasts hadn’t been stimulated to make more. She attempted to encourage milk production through the use of a hospital grade pump and certain herbs, to no avail.

“I wasn’t going to let breastfeeding slip away from me. I also felt guilty that my baby hadn’t put on the weight he should have and bloody angry at the multiple healthcare professionals I had talked to trying to get this sorted. The health service claim to support breastfeeding mums but there are some rather large gaps in that support,” she adds.

Sonya discussed baby’s need for more milk with the lactation consultant. Although Sonya was aware of the historical practice of wet nursing, it wasn’t something she considered until she realised that donor milk was higher on the WHO list of preference, than formula.

“A good friend of mine who had had her baby a few weeks after mine, kindly gave me a 5oz bag of breastmilk to get me started. She offered without my asking and said she hoped I didn’t find it weird — I didn’t.

“Another person local to me, kindly volunteered to pump some milk for us every day and even drove it out to my house. She had first-hand experience of tongue tie with one of her children.

“She connected me with another mammy in Limerick who had been pumping to donate and was finishing up but had quite a large freezer stash. I nearly cried when I went to pick it up. There was well over 150oz — such a weight off my mind!

“Milk donation was more than just getting food for my baby, it also gave me a connection with these women who were a wonderful support to us — a modern day village of sorts.”

Although Sonya availed of donor milk informally, meaning that it didn’t come from a milk bank where donors are screened, she felt comfortable because she knew the person well. “You could, if you wish, pasteurise breastmilk at home. I made the informed decision that it wasn’t necessary in my case as donors were known to me.”

James thrived on donor milk, gaining weight and climbing the centile charts. Sonya continued to attend breastfeeding support groups during her second pregnancy, assuming she would face a similar experience to her first.

More glandular tissue however, developed in her breasts during this pregnancy and her second son William’s tongue tie was reversed on day 9 as opposed to James’ reversal at week 13. Amazingly breastfeeding second time around is proving a very different experience and donor milk is not required.

“If you think you have a low supply, please reach out to a lactation consultant,” Sonya advises, “and work with them to find out the actual cause. Every breastfeeding problem has a breastfeeding-friendly solution.”

Lactation consultant Nicola O’Byrne says some signs of tongue tie include sore nipples and poor latch that’s not improving in spite of lots of help. “Slow weight gain despite lots of feeding is another red flag — either baby can’t get the milk or mum might not be making it.

“Some mothers have a perceived low supply — they don’t realise how often they need to feed baby, it’s more a lack of knowledge. True low supply generally has a clue in the history such as thyroid issues, fertility problems etc. Sometimes we see markers on the breast shape that gives us clues.”

Lactation consultants are the best option to work out what is wrong, says Nicola. “We are trained and experienced in this area so can provide all the options to families for easier breastfeeding.”

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