Monday 19 March 2018

Forget formulas, why these mums say breast is best

Conflicting advice means many mothers are confused about breastfeeding. Celine Naughton reports

Devoted mother: Chris Finn breastfed her daughter Eliza for two and a half years. Photo by Patrick Hogan.
Devoted mother: Chris Finn breastfed her daughter Eliza for two and a half years. Photo by Patrick Hogan.
Michelle Obama, with daughters Malia and Sasha, supports breastfeeding. Photo: Reuters

While Michelle Obama urges women to breastfeed Stateside, Irish women have one of the lowest breastfeeding rates in the developed world.

"Kids who are breastfed longer have a lower tendency to be obese," said the First Lady who breastfed both her daughters, Malia and Sasha, and is now calling for the removal of barriers to nursing at work.

Meanwhile, on this side of the pond, it appears that we're not getting the message.

According to an OECD study of 30 countries looking at the proportion of mothers who initiate breastfeeding, Ireland came Patsy Last at 43%, way behind Norway, Sweden and Denmark at almost 100%. And a UNICEF study found that a mere 3% of Irish babies are still breastfed at six months.

For those mothers who begin to breastfeed, one of the most confusing things may be when to stop -- especially when they hear conflicting advice from the experts. The HSE and World Health Organization (WHO) encourage mothers to breastfeed exclusively for six months before introducing solid food.

But a team from University College London (UCL) recently argued that breastfed babies could safely be given solid food from four months.

They also suggested that breastfeeding exclusively for six months could increase the risk of allergies and deter children from eating foods with a bitter taste like green, leafy vegetables. This could encourage unhealthy eating in later life and lead to obesity, they warned.

The breastfeeding lobby hit back immediately, claiming conflict of interest as three out of four of the report's authors had received past funding from the baby-food industry.

WHO reiterated its recommendation that mothers exclusively breastfeed for six months, then add solid foods "and continue breastfeeding up to the age of two years or beyond".

Lactation consultant Sue Jameson echoes this response. "The UCL report was not a new study; it was an opinion piece. Whereas the WHO guidelines are based on a huge body of evidence," she says.

With 25 years' experience in helping Irish mothers to breastfeed, Sue has seen many changes in that time.

"In the 1970s, breastfeeding was all but extinguished in this country and we lost a whole generation of skilled helpers," she says.

"The formula companies did a great job of persuading mothers their product would liberate them. Forget the slogan, 'Breast is best'. Breast milk is the normal food for human babies. Yet the alternative was peddled as the norm. It was a good sales pitch.

"The turning point came in 1990 when the WHO Innocenti Declaration was established. This prevented the promotion of infant formula for babies under six months and stopped formula manufacturers having direct access to mothers.

"Twenty-one years later, mothers are wise to what's going on. This generation has access to the internet, social network sites and new technology which allows them to support each other.

"We still have a long way to go. We don't provide good aftercare so, while more women are starting to breastfeed, few sustain it. Public health nurses are stretched, and the political will to change does not exist. There are not enough people in enough places who think it matters."

But a new generation of Irish mums think breastfeeding is a very important matter and they're using all the modern technology at their disposal to get their message out there.

'We're not a bunch of tree-hugging hippies or militants flashing their boobs, we're just ordinary women who want to do the most normal thing in their world for our children," says Chris Finn, a 30-year-old student nurse from Waterford who breastfed daughter Eliza for two-and-a-half years -- although she says it was no thanks to the hospital where she gave birth.

"I didn't feel supported in my efforts to breastfeed. I asked the midwife how I should know if the baby was getting enough and she said, 'If you're not sure, we'll give her a bottle'.

"The public health nurse said the baby wasn't heavy enough and encouraged me to give her a bottle every so often. I chose to ignore that and Eliza started putting on weight anyway.

"The first time I breastfed in public was horrible. I felt awkward and thought the whole world was looking at me. But after that, I didn't let it bother me.

"I was always discreet -- yet I don't understand the need for discretion in this context. Women expose their breasts on page three of the tabloids; why such horror when we use them as nature intended?

"In 2009 I set up Friends of Breastfeeding with other mothers I had met on an online chat forum. We were all fed up with the cultural attitude to breastfeeding.

"One mum was asked to stop breastfeeding in a GP's surgery and directed to the bathroom if she wanted to continue.

"Another had her public health nurse recommend that she 'top up' with formula, which resulted in her breastfeeding experience ending sooner than she would have liked.

"Lots of experiences like this motivated us to get together and try to make a difference.

"We promote awareness through our website, information packs and events such as art exhibitions that we run nationwide during National Breastfeeding Week."

Another mum who decided to take action is Dr Siun Murphy who set up the website in 2008 with friends who are also medical doctors and mothers.

"I had three babies in hospital and nobody came near me to even talk about breastfeeding, let alone offer support," she says.

'It's not women's fault that the rate of breastfeeding is so low in this country. It's not taught at medical school. Mothers come home from hospital often with no information about breastfeeding, they may have the baby blues and they have no incentive to breastfeed.

"There is no money in breastfeeding, and we can't compete with the baby-food industry, but we can try to make women see that they have a choice.

"We have a hang-up in Ireland about our bodies and this doesn't help when you're at home with sore nipples and nobody to talk to about it.

"One important aspect of our site is that mums can access a panel of medics and lactation experts who offer advice as and when they need it."

Among the site's supporters are two of Ireland's best known mums, celebrity chefs Rachel Allen and Domini Kemp.

"You can be a yummy mummy and breastfeed as the stylish option," says Siun, "and as all recessionistas know, breastfeeding is free!"

For further information

Irish Independent

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