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‘We need billboards encouraging new mothers to breastfeed’ – urges maternity care professor

Call by neonatologist comes as National Breastfeeding Week gets under way


Photo: Stock image

Photo: Stock image

Photo: Stock image

Billboards saying “breast is best” should be on display across the country in the same way as they are used to promote road safety, a consultant neonatologist has said.

Neonatologist Professor Roy K Philip, of University Hospital Limerick, was speaking as National Breastfeeding Week got under way, with Ireland lagging behind many other countries.

“We need investment in promotion, and support is vital here,” Prof Philip said.

“We know how successful our public health systems can be. Look at cigarette smoking. Reduction in smoking in the past two decades could not have been achieved without advertising. It could not.

“We have demonstrated to the whole world that we can be a pioneer. We’ve also done it with road safety, immunisation, but where are the hundreds of billboards around the country showing that breastfeeding is the best?”

And he went on, “I recall going to a conference about 20 years ago at a large Scandinavian hospital, which had at the time a breastfeeding initiation rate of over 90pc.

“Every hour in that hospital, every display screen changed to a 30-second breastfeeding advertisement.

“That is what is called investing in a community. It has to be powerful, and after that, it has to be supported.

“We have to invest in the support systems in our maternity hospitals, in the community, in our society, if we’re really serious about bringing ourselves to the levels of international partners who are doing extremely well.”

Irish breastfeeding rates are among the lowest in the world.

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“In the midwest 61.4pc of live births in 2020 initiated breastfeeding,” Prof Philip said.

“The rate in Scandinavian countries is consistently over 90pc. I’m not saying we can immediately be like Scandinavia, but achieving that rate should be our mission.”

Prof Philip was speaking following the publication in the journal Maternal and Child Nutrition, of his research into 20 years of birth data from University Maternity Hospital Limerick. He explored the reasons for low breastfeeding rates in the region, and proposed 10 priority national actions to increase those rates.

The collaborative research paper: ‘A repeated cross-sectional analysis of breastfeeding initiation rates in Ireland for two decades and 10 recommended priorities for improvement’ was conducted in collaboration with colleagues and the School of Medicine in the University of Limerick (UL) and at Dublin City University.

It found various cultural practices and norms in Ireland that “solidify the inertia to change”, slowing the beneficial impact of public health initiatives and preventing breastfeeding from reaching the levels that are the norm in many other countries.

The paper also highlighted “pockets of deprivation still prevailing in the midwest”.

“Cultural issues include the negative social perception and acceptance, and the fear of personnel embarrassment among mothers.

“The researchers found that these general national cultural attitudes have also negatively influenced breastfeeding among mothers of immigrant populations; for whom exclusive breastfeeding is often the norm.

“Other themes identified include education and a lack of exposure to breastfeeding in child and adolescent education, as well as the lack of ‘vicarious experience’ that has shown to be an important influencer in breastfeeding initiation.”

He said that currently 63-64pc of women in University Maternity Hospital Limerick embark on breastfeeding.

However, by the time they are discharged, and within a few days after that, the rate is coming down.

“That reveals that there has been an intention to breastfeed, but the system has not done enough to support this.”

He has identified 10 priorities including implementing breastfeeding awareness and observation into primary and secondary education curriculums, regularising and improving staffing levels in maternity hospitals and neonatal units.

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