'What’s holding Irish women back from getting our boobs out to feed our babies?'
Before she had her daughter Erin, breastfeeding seemed like a no-brainer
‘It’s natural that your baby will crawl up to your breast and suck away,” proclaimed the midwife at my antenatal class. After a lengthy induction process followed by an emergency caesarean, a medical team swooped in to latch my baby girl on to the breast. Whacked out of it on morphine and an epidural, it’s a blur; hardly Mother Earth stuff.
Before I had my daughter, Erin, I was determined to breastfeed. The benefits of breastfeeding were too numerous to ignore. It seemed like a no-brainer. I just wish someone had told me that it’s harder than labour, and it doesn’t work out for everyone.
The risk of pneumonia, cold and viruses is reduced in breastfed babies and the likelihood of your baby developing long-term conditions such as type 2 diabetes, coeliac disease and Crohn’s disease is also lessened. Breastfeeding lowers your baby’s risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) and of contracting childhood cancers, while it has also been shown to reduce the chances of both mother and baby becoming obese in later years. An astonishing benefit of breastfeeding is that whenever your baby has symptoms of a sickness, its saliva is absorbed by your nipple, and your body then produces the antibodies necessary to fight the sickness, and streams them into the breastmilk. They don’t call it liquid gold for nothing.
On paper, it sounds so natural. It sounds like the only option any woman would choose, but that’s not always how it happens. It’s every mother’s right to feed her baby the way she chooses, be it breast, formula or pumping. And while, of course, we should be supported if we choose to breastfeed, we should not be chastised or breast-shamed if we choose not to.
In the middle of one of her London concerts last year, Adele spoke out on this tricky topic.“It’s fucking ridiculous,” she said to the crowd, “and all of those people who put pressure on us, you can go fuck yourselves, alright? Because it’s hard. Some of us can’t do it. I managed about nine weeks with my boobs . . . some of my mates got post-natal depression from the way those midwives were talking. Idiots.”
Closer to home, columnist Amanda Brunker has spoken up about how tough breastfeeding was for her, and she wasn’t thanked for it. She was also slammed for saying, “Honestly, folks, any child that can ask for the breast, (and that has teeth!), should have moved on to drinking from a cup, because the sight of toddlers being breastfed unsettles me”.
Brunker, the honest TV babe, spoke of her agonising weeks trying to feed her older son, Edward. She said, “He cried constantly and got skinnier every day. It wasn’t until I broke down emotionally, with feelings of failure, and stuck a bottle in his mouth that he settled. He was finally full and content, as was I.”
Amanda’s honesty was met with hate mail from other mothers, asserting their right to breastfeed if they chose to. To boob or not to boob gets everyone in a tizzy to the point that it’s almost taboo. You’re damned if you nurse, and you’re damned if you don’t.
My personal resolve to stick with the breast when it comes to feeding my eight-month-old daughter has met with many obstacles along the way, some from society and some from healthcare professionals.
“If you want to breastfeed, you’ve got to keep ringing that hospital bell,” advised a seasoned mother in Holles Street. The midwives were exhausted and bleary-eyed from an overload of bells chiming — hundreds of new moms like me begging them to come to their aid — but this other mother made it clear that I’d need the midwives’ help if I was going to succeed.
Very quickly, I got used to strange hands shoving my nipple into my baby’s mouth. On night two, I was shattered, my body ached, and I was facing my first breastfeeding hurdle. A midwife asked me if I wanted four hours’ sleep, saying she’d give my baby a top-up. The lure of some sleep was just too great, so I succumbed, and Erin was given some formula. The next day, guilt consumed me, and I told the midwife I would return to breastfeeding, even though the idea of quitting was attractive, and the dull pain of latching on my baby was hell.
With your new, first baby, you feel utterly useless at the start, as both you and your child are learning how to do it. Natural, my backside! Ireland has one of the lowest breastfeeding rates in the world, with barely half of all Irish women having ever even tried it, compared to up to a 90pc rate in other developed countries.
What’s holding us back from getting our boobs out to feed our babies?
Is it an intrinsic sense of shame, harking back to old Catholic Ireland? Findings published in the BMJ Global Health journal state breastfeeding rates are higher in areas where the proportion of Roman Catholics is lower.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends that women breastfeed their babies exclusively for six months, and then partially until the child reaches two. In Australia, if you are having trouble breastfeeding, you can check yourself back into the maternity ward for a few days. In the UK, formula is not even stocked in some hospitals. I mentioned recently to a friend that I might continue feeding Erin until she’s a year old, and my friend recoiled in horror, saying, “But, but . . . she’ll have teeth!”
One of my breastfeeding battles was with an unlikely foe — my public health nurse. She was consumed by Erin’s weight gain; you’d swear the child was legendary boxer Cassius Clay. She kept showing me how my baby was performing badly on the centile (growth) charts, as if my milk was making her emaciated. I felt like a big, fat failure. I was told to pump an extra 180mls of breast milk a day, and if I couldn’t, then I should give a formula top-up. Pumping milk is a soul-destroying exercise that makes you feel like a cow. In my case, I couldn’t pump the required amount, as at that stage my milk was not established. I had no option but to give Erin some formula. Feeling bamboozled by it all, I hired a lactation consultant, only to discover that giving formula and skipping a breastfeed was further diminishing my milk supply.
Lactation consultant and midwife Catriona McCarthy from themilkyway.ie says, “In dietician Dr Jocelyn Tarrant’s research: less than 12pc of women are exclusively breastfeeding at, and just after, six months’.
“The recommendation per 3,000 births is one full-time lactation consultant; there are over 9,000 births per year in Holles Street and there are one-and-a-half posts covering that workload. You’re run off your feet.
“If we had the same system as in the UK,” continues Catriona, “you’re covered by a community midwife as soon as you’ve had your baby for up to 10 days [after the birth], which covers the period where your milk comes in, and all the difficulties that can ensue. Then you have the expertise of someone who knows about birth, labour and milk coming in.”
Why there are such low levels of breastfeeding in Ireland? “People associate breastfeeding with the intimacy of sex, instead of appreciating that it’s the intimacy between a mother and a baby,” Catriona says.
Is low milk supply common? “Behind breastfeeding, there are a whole variety of hormones that will determine whether you have milk and how much milk you have,” says Catriona. “And the way it will come out. Women don’t give themselves a chance. If they knew the process wasn’t simple, they might be less hard on themselves.
It doesn’t help that official advice is to be “discreet” when we breastfeed in public. The HSE pamphlet tells us that wearing a scarf means that the public won’t even know you’re doing it. For god’s sake, guys, we’re feeding our babies, not starring in a public porn film! At first, I tried to get the hang of the scarf thing, but it was futile, as my baby couldn’t find my nipple. Would you ask a man to cover his face while drinking soup?
To produce breastmilk, we melt our own body fat, starting with our derrieres, a fact lifestyle blogger Grace Mongey (28) from Tallaght discovered, when she dropped three stone a mere three weeks after having her baby girl, Sienna, late last year. The Faces by Grace blogger says, “I put the weight loss down to breastfeeding”.
Breastfeeding came naturally to Grace until week two, when she got mastitis. “It was just in one boob and it was only when Sienna was latched on — it was like a pulling pain, inflamed and red,” Grace explains. “People said that if I got mastitis, I’d have to stop feeding, and they were just being negative about it. I was delighted I didn’t have to give it up.”
Grace documented some of her birth on the social-media platform Snapchat, and she hopes she encourages younger mums to breastfeed. It hasn’t all been positive for the young influencer, who was slammed on social media after a night on the town when she had consumed alcohol. “I had calculated enough hours,” she explains. “It was 10am the next morning, so the alcohol would have left my system, but I just threw the breastmilk down the sink to shut them up and posted it on Snapchat. Afterward, I was told that this milk would have been fine. People just want to have a say, but I’m not able for it when it’s about my baby.”
Did feeding take over her life? “You have to be there 24/7 and you can’t pass control over to your partner, which sometimes can be a bit annoying, because he rolls over and you’re left doing everything,” says Grace, “but sometimes I like that it’s just me.”
Model Alison McDonnell (35) from Rathfarnham is mother to baby Sienna (eight months), Harry (seven), Sara (13) and Alex (15). She breastfed all of her children. She says, “Everyone thinks you don’t need to toughen up your nipples, but you do. I was bleeding and I was sore and I was waking up at night rocking her back and forth, saying ‘I can’t do this’.”
On the services in this country, Alison is dubious. “You know there’s this thing of, ‘Well, that baby’s on the boob and everything’s grand’,” she says. “And then, five minutes later, the baby is off and the midwife’s gone, and then the mother is struggling.” The model advises that if you get past the first three weeks of mental torture, you can do it. “It’s agony and your body has gone through the mill,” she says. “You’re like a basket case. You’re lactating, out of shape, you think, ‘What the hell?’ You feel like a slug, but you get through it.
“I found it very uncomfortable to breastfeed in public, and what I hate are the breastfeeding rooms,” says Alison. “I was modelling in a posh department store, the breastfeeding room was in the changing room, so there were men coming in and out to change their babies, and that was OK. But when someone came in to change their toddler — the smell! Would you eat your lunch while someone was going to the toilet in a cubicle beside you?
“When you have a young baby under six weeks old, trying to latch them on and be discreet is a nightmare. You need your full boob out because you can’t smother your baby,” Alison continues. “So when they’re that small it’s easier to bring them into a breastfeeding room, but then it stinks!”
Men viewing boobs as sexual is par for the course, says the Rathfarnham beauty. “Boobs sell, there’s no denying it — if you’re a hot girl with your boobs out, men are going to look. I was breastfeeding Harry once. I had a short black dress on and black sucky-in tights and a muslin cloth draped on my lap, so there was no way anyone could see anything, but a waiter turned around and said, ‘Not only do we get to see boob, we get to see panties, too!’”
As a model, was it less intimidating for Alison? “If you weren’t confident, it could be hard,” she says. “I’m used to whipping off clothes doing fashion shows and don’t care who’s watching, stretch marks out and all, but most girls I know would be mortified, because it’s the way we were brought up. In old Catholic Ireland, we’re made to feel ashamed.”
I ask Alison if the fear of saggy boobs stops Irish women from nursing. “Irish women have become too vain,” she says. “They want to get straight back into the gym, but your boobs will stretch so much during pregnancy when the milk is building up, so you’re still going to have burst balloons anyway, regardless if you breastfeed or not.”
“As for the celeb ‘brelfie’ [breastfeeding selfie] craze, they’ve been Photoshopped to death,” she adds, “because your boobs go all veiny and lumpy and your nipples go a weird shape and they look gross.”
Does it take over your life? “It’s very time-consuming,” Alison says, “but when you know the benefits, it’s a bit selfish of people not to try”.
Any downsides? “You’ve just given birth,” Alison concludes. “You feel your sexiness has gone out the window, your partner views you as this lactating Mother-Earth thing, and you’re attached to this child all the time. I felt that this time round especially.”
Actress Leigh Arnold (37) from Foxrock is currently finishing her first novel. She breastfed her three children, Hunter (four), baby Flynn, who tragically died from SIDS at two-and-a-half weeks; and Piper (17 months).
The actress got stick for breastfeeding baby Hunter upon returning to live in Dublin from the UK. “I’m not a breastfeeding Nazi, but when I arrived back to Dublin and was out to lunch with friends, I’d breastfeed whenever Hunter was hungry,” Leigh says. “And I found it astonishing and became quite self-conscious because I was being questioned, like, ‘Why are you doing that?; sure what’s the point of doing that when you’ve got formula?’”
“It felt like I was being looked at with raised eyebrows, as they told me it wasn’t necessary. I found myself explaining in a ‘but . . . but . . . but . . . ’ kind of way.
“When I came back to Ireland, I found myself so embarrassed by some of my friends that I’d go into a bathroom to feed my baby,” Leigh continues. “I didn’t like the looks I was getting, and I felt ashamed. When I was living in the UK, the way they’ve been programmed, as opposed to the way we have, meant that breastfeeding was completely normal.
“We have no right as women to judge what another person is doing,” she says. “I come from a family where breastfeeding was a normal thing. It’s not like my mum and my aunts were sitting in a field singing Kumbaya with their boobs out; but, for me, it was normalised.”
For Leigh, it was natural for her child to feed from the outset, as he or she had thrived within her, and as she says: “It was the most empowering time of my life. For the first time in my life, I had achieved something great being a mother. With Flynn, I got mastitis, and that was very painful. I’d made so many screw-ups in my life, but nothing was as true and as honest in my life until I became a mum.”
Hunter was six weeks old when the actress landed the role in TV drama Deception; “I moved us all over from the UK to the west of Ireland, and I said to the producers, ‘Look, I’m breastfeeding — is that OK?’ They were so accommodating — it wasn’t even questioned.
“I wasn’t being demanding or trying to be a diva. It was just like, if I needed to feed during a scene, was it OK if we worked around it and did another scene so I could feed my baby?”
What was Leigh’s reason for breastfeeding? “I never wanted to give my child a man-made formula. I wanted to give my baby the formula made in my body,” she answers emphatically. The actress feels nursing is making a comeback, but slowly. “Seventy per cent of my peers in Ireland put their babies straight onto formula,” she says.
“There’s not enough explanation of the benefits”, she says. “The conversations among my peers outside Ireland were all about breastfeeding, and it wasn’t a taboo. It wasn’t shameful; there wasn’t a weirdness to the conversation because everyone does it.
“I don’t hear people in Ireland talking about it openly,” Leigh continues. “It’s almost whispered; it’s almost, ‘Oh my god, is she really doing that?’ We need to stop being embarrassed and self-conscious, because we’re stopping people from doing the most natural thing in the world.
“I lost two stone in three weeks; my husband fancied me rotten; it was one of the most romantic times of my life. For me, the endorphins were going off in my brain, and it’s all connected. It’s [breastfeeding] not just there to provide milk, it is there to provide so many great things for the woman’s body, like hormones to fight off postnatal depression,” Leigh says.
“We’re told to write a birth plan, but what about an ‘after birth’ plan? Because I ended up having two C-sections. You can’t plan your birth; but you can plan what happens afterwards.”
So after all those conversations with other mothers, my feeling is that if you want to breastfeed in this country, you need to take the public reaction with a pinch of salt and be brave. A sentiment echoed by my breastfeeding support group, which we’ve aptly named ‘the boob group’.
Recently, while sitting in a cafe, an acquaintance told me that it was great that I had no shame about breastfeeding in public, but what about the other people I might be offending?
A group of teenagers spotted me feeding Erin on the seafront and roared, “Look at the knockers on your one”. At a friend’s wedding, a mate’s husband uttered, “Why would you bother with that shite; the kids turn out the same anyway,” adding, “You know, formula isn’t that expensive”.
Some months on, I have the confidence to feed my baby anywhere, from a hop-on, hop-off bus tour, to a plane, to Jim Morrison’s grave in Paris. Know-it-all’s have called me mad for allowing my daughter to use me as a soother — they’d rather I stick a pacifier in her mouth to shut her up. Experienced mothers with their tuppence-worth, say, “You’re getting her into bad habits, not teaching her to self-soothe; you’re ruining her; you need to get your life back”.
My attitude? She is my life. And besides, weren’t boobs here before dummies?
Mothers know breast, right?
For more information on lactation consultancy, see themilkyway.ie
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