Saturday 24 September 2016

Is breastfeeding still taboo in Ireland?

Joyce Fagan

Published 09/03/2016 | 09:56

Laura Nolan Horgan and her four-month-old son Hugo. Photo: Mark Condren.
Laura Nolan Horgan and her four-month-old son Hugo. Photo: Mark Condren.
Maryline Waters, spokesperson for Friends of Breastfeeding.
Rhona Mahoney, Master of the National Maternity Hospital in Holles Street.
TD Mary Mitchell O'Connor is an advocate of breastfeeding.

Ireland has the lowest rates of breastfeeding in the world. Fact. Like it or not, feeding a baby milk from your semi-exposed breast is not yet the norm here. And it's not the norm for a multitude of reasons.

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According to recent statistics, 56pc of Irish mothers breastfeed, and this number drops to 6pc by the time their babies are six months old.

Irish University research identifies the Catholic Church and body-shame as the main cause of the taboo, others claim that it's the high density of baby formula companies here, and some say it just isn't seen as a trendy or fashionable thing to do. Some people even associate breastfeeding with poverty.

Last week in this paper, journalist Amanda Brunker wrote about the topic of motherhood, guilt and how the sight of toddlers being breastfed unsettled her. Her opinion ignited the breastfeeding debate, showing once again that people in Ireland feel very conflicted about it.

Maryline Waters, spokesperson for Friends of Breastfeeding.
Maryline Waters, spokesperson for Friends of Breastfeeding.

Whatever the reason behind this, in an Ireland of 2016, new mothers do not feel comfortable breastfeeding their child in public.

"From my point of view, I do think there's an issue because I got those looks and I did feel uncomfortable. I am completely pro-breastfeeding and I did it myself, but I didn't feel comfortable doing it and there is 100pc a stigma out there," says mum-of-two Laura Nolan Horgan (30).

Laura is mum to four-month-old Hugo and 21-month-old Elizabeth. Her experience of trying to breastfeed her children in modern Ireland would make you doubt the calendar year by a couple of decades.

"I would bring a breastfeeding sheet out with me, which is basically like a cover-up and it made me feel a little bit more secure about the whole thing because you do get people looking at you funny.

"I'm all up for doing what's best for your baby, but at the same time, you know, I just didn't feel comfortable. But I did it," explains the Dublin-based stylist and blogger.

Did she really have people stare at her?

Rhona Mahoney, Master of the National Maternity Hospital in Holles Street.
Rhona Mahoney, Master of the National Maternity Hospital in Holles Street.

"Yeah definitely, yeah. It's actually really sad because at the end of the day, you want to be the best mum ever and you want to do what's best for your baby and you can't be isolated being at home, you want to get out and about with your baby, you crack up at home, so it is sad that you have to take into consideration these kind of things.

"I would usually have expressed beforehand so I didn't have any issues when I was outside breastfeeding, but if I had do in certain situations, I would make sure I was tucked up in a corner somewhere or very hidden, or if I was with someone, I would make sure that they were sitting in a position where I wasn't open to public view," explains Laura.

At home and with family, she felt very relaxed breastfeeding Hugo, but when she was out in public she felt the stigma.

"I was very comfortable breastfeeding at home in front of my family, my mum, my dad, my father-in-law, but it's just when you're out in public, people do look at you and it's really awkward.

"When people look at you, I just look the other way and think, 'Oh God, stop looking at me.' I think it just has such a taboo and I don't know what it is. It's the most natural thing in the world," she says.

Laura, who used to be the creative director of Irish fashion firm Fran and Jane before it closed last year, now blogs at the LNH Image International and she found that it was her posts about breastfeeding that really got people talking.

TD Mary Mitchell O'Connor is an advocate of breastfeeding.
TD Mary Mitchell O'Connor is an advocate of breastfeeding.

She thinks that if more people did it and spoke about it, things would change.

There are two things that she points to when it comes to the cause of the taboo.

"It's such a faux pas kind of a thing. A lot of my friends don't breastfeed their babies because they think it's for hippies," she says.

"I just think it's not fashionable, it's not a very trendy thing to do. Even the breastfeeding sheets, they're not great looking things," adds Laura.

Maryline Waters, a spokeswoman for the support group Friends of Breastfeeding, is also a mother-of-two and she breastfed her youngest child until he was three years old.

"My little girl was born 10 years ago. I stopped breastfeeding when she was just over one because I felt there was nobody else feeding for that long and I felt a bit odd about it.

"My little boy, I had the support of Friends of Breastfeeding and I went until he was three because I met people who had done it and I realised it was okay. The HSE and the World Health Organization (WHO) recommend two years or more, so it is not unusual," says Maryline.

Afraid

Friends of Breastfeeding runs mother-to-mother support groups in Dublin, Cork and will run them in the Midlands soon. There are also buddy systems in place for new mums. The charity grew out of an online support group six years ago and it plans to be nationwide in the future.

Maryline would encourage people to just go out and do it, and also change the language around it as a way to break the stigma.

"Babies are allowed eat in the company of others. I like that better than saying breastfeeding in public because that sounds like a bit of a show. It's just wherever you happen to be your baby can eat.

"Mothers are afraid because people make a huge deal of it, but if you actually go out and do it, it doesn't happen that often. It's rare when the experiences of negativity are highlighted," she believes.

Maryline thinks that the taboo around breastfeeding is caused by a number of factors like the Catholic Church's influence as well as the baby formula firms.

"There is a bit of that (Church-caused stigma) even though the Pope has recently spoken in favour of breastfeeding, there is a bit of prudishness that is still there but mainly it's the less people do it the less other people will do it.

"If you go around a shopping centre and look you'll see babies mostly being bottle fed, so you can imagine for a new mother who doesn't really know, she'll look around and she'll see all the babies being bottle fed you might think 'This (breastfeeding) isn't the done thing.'

"There's also the fact that Ireland produces a lot of formula, it's in the culture," says Maryline.

Dr Rhona Mahony, Master of the National Maternity Hospital, told The Herald that the encouragement of breastfeeding is a national responsibility.

"It is great to see women breastfeeding. The early days of breastfeeding a first baby can be challenging, but things do get easier as feeding gets established. Everyone in society has a role to play in supporting new mothers through encouragement, appreciation and practical measures, like helping with the housework so that mothers have time to nurse their babies," says Dr Mahony.

Dublin TD, Mary Mitchell O'Connor, who has been outspoken about supporting new mothers in the past calls for society as a whole to change its attitude to breastfeeding.

"Society's attitudes to breastfeeding in Ireland needs to change to help mothers feel more comfortable about doing it in public.

"People need to know and understand the importance of trying to help the new mother achieve her goal of breastfeeding.

"An education process is required here for Irish society - there is no need for mothers or anybody passing by to be embarrassed.

"Increasing the number of women breastfeeding in public would 'normalise' the practice and encourage more women to breastfeed," she says.

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