Monday 21 January 2019

Should breastfeeding be allowed in the Dáil and Seanad chambers?

Former Labour Party leader Joan Burton. Photo: Frank McGrath
Former Labour Party leader Joan Burton. Photo: Frank McGrath
Roisin Shortall. Photo: Tom Burke
Catherine Ardagh
The Green Party's Catherine Martin
Deputy Fiona O'Loughlin
Grace O'Sullivan
Ivana Bacik
Labour TD Jan O’Sullivan. Photo: Tom Burke
Senator Alice Mary Higgins
Geraldine Gittens

Geraldine Gittens

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the majority of babies in Ireland were fed formula.

In 1974 for instance, the breastfeeding initiation rate at the Rotunda hospital was 11pc.

But breastfeeding rates in Ireland are now climbing. Last year, 55.4pc of Irish babies were being breastfed at the time of the public health nurse's first visit, which usually takes place within days of the birth.

But Ireland still has the lowest rate for breastfeeding in Europe.

A study published in The Lancet in 2016 found Ireland had the lowest breastfeeding rates of 27 high-income countries.

The World Health Organisation says adolescents who were breastfed as babies are less likely to be overweight or obese. They are less likely to have type-II diabetes and they perform better in intelligent tests, the WHO says.

The Irish government's action plan on breastfeeding wants to increase breastfeeding duration rates by two per cent every year for the next four years.

Part of this strategy is to encourage the provision of supports for women breastfeeding in the workplace.

Internationally, politicians who were also new mothers have been - granted, sometimes inadvertently - raising awareness about breastfeeding in their parliaments.

In 2013, Victorian Labor MP and new mother Kirstie Marshall was asked to leave state parliament because she was breastfeeding her 11-day-old daughter.

A parliamentary rule did not permit "strangers" or unelected members in the house, she was told.

But Ms Marshall said: "I didn't come here to break the rules. Charlotte was due for a feed, so I whacked her on the breast and walked in and sat down. Then an official came and told me there was a room set aside for me to feed her."

Three years later, the Australian Parliament changed its rules to allow mothers to breastfeed in the chamber. Australia has a 90pc initiation rate for exclusive breastfeeding.

Also in 2016, Icelandic politician Unnur Brá Konráðsdóttir nursed her six-week-old daughter at the podium of the Alþingi parliament, while explaining her vote on new immigration legislation.

Here, in Ireland, no one except elected members and officials are allowed inside the chamber. But there is no policy on breastfeeding in the Houses of the Oireachtas, a spokesperson says.

“We have no policy on breastfeeding in the chambers as it has never arisen as an issue, but as it stands, only elected members and officials are allowed in the chamber.”

There are no maternity or paternity leave entitlements for TDs and Senators in Ireland.

Many Irish female TDs and Senators have called for the rules to be changed.

Speaking to, former education minister Jan O’Sullivan told that breastfeeding should be allowed inside the Dail and Seanad chambers.

Ms O’Sullivan said: “I would be in favour of changing the rules to allow breastfeeding in the chamber.”

“I will take the opportunity to raise the issue of breast-feeding in the chamber(s) at the meeting of the Women's Parliamentary Caucus.”

Social Democrats TD Roisin Shorthall said: “For sure, I think breastfeeding should be allowed in the Dáil chamber and indeed council chambers around the country.

“Actually, we raised it as an issue for council chambers last year… This was on foot of some work my colleague Cllr. Jennifer Whitmore was doing in this area.”

“Jennifer was the first councillor to breastfeed her baby during a county council meeting (Wicklow) in 2016."

“We strongly believe that there needs to be a concerted effort to increase rates in Ireland and that its important that it is seen as the norm.”

There are breastfeeding facilities in the Oireachtas for members of staff who wish to breastfeed. But breastfeeding in the chambers themselves has not been sanctioned.

Were it to be sanctioned, it would send a clear message to the Irish public, some TDs and Senators feel.

A spokesperson for the Department of Health said the government's national maternity strategy should support women in their choice to breastfeed.

“National health policy emphasises the importance of supporting mothers who breastfeed as well as taking action to increase breastfeeding rates in Ireland.”

“The National Maternity Strategy 2016-2026 states that in addition to practical supports which can be provided to mothers, such as support to continue breastfeeding on return to the workplace, a broader societal change is required in order to promote a more positive culture around breastfeeding. This should support women to feel confident about their choice to breastfeed.”

In 2014, the journal Maternal and Child Health published a study looking at breastfeeding and maternal depression.

It found that mothers who planned to breastfeed and went on to do so were around 50pc less likely to become depressed than mothers who had not planned to, and who did not, breastfeed.

Senator Catherine Ardagh said Ireland has a long way to go before women feel confident to be able to breastfeed in the chamber.

The Oireachtas needs to become a more women-friendly environment, she says.

“I believe all women who have children should get as much support as possible to breastfeed their babies. All of the research shows it benefits the baby and the low figures for women who breastfeed in Ireland has never been tackled on a constant basis. This is a shame. Breastfeeding should be the norm and not a rarity. Ireland has one of the lowest rate in the world.”

“At least under section four of the Maternity Act there are entitlements laid out to help mothers who return to work and who still want to breastfeed. These entitlements should be promoted more so that women are aware.”

“Unfortunately women who are elected to the Oireachtas do not have maternity leave and this needs to be corrected. Some colleagues who have had children have come back to work within a month or less and this is not fair. More women should be encouraged to make the choice to breastfeed and employers / workplaces should provide facilities to allow them to continue to do so when they return to work.”

“The Oireachtas should become more women friendly and it was good to see child care facilities opened in the last few years but we have a long way to go in relation to women to feel confident to be able to breastfeed in the chamber”.

She added: “I have requested this item be on the agenda at the next Seanad Committee on Procedures and Privileges and this request has been acceded to.”

Senator Ivana Bacik, who was pregnant with her second daughter when she was first elected in 2007, says she was happy to use the Oireachtas crèche facilities to breastfeed her baby when she returned to work. Having conveniently located breastfeeding facilities was key, she said.

“In the Seanad, I am one of very few women for whom [breastfeeding in Parliament] might have been an issue, as I was pregnant with my second daughter when first elected back in 2007 - but I was really pleased then to learn that other women previously elected to the Oireachtas had campaigned for provision of on-site Oireachtas creche facilities, so I was able to use those both for part-time child care and for breastfeeding when my baby was small.”

“It was great as it meant I could still attend the chamber and participate in certain debates without being too far from my daughter and before I was ready to return to work full-time.”

“It is really important that provision is made for breastfeeding in workplaces, particularly given the very low rate of breastfeeding in Ireland - women need crucial supports both while on leave and when they return to work, in order to encourage greater take-up.”

She added: “I think the main thing is to have conveniently located breastfeeding facilities available in workplaces generally”

Green party TD Catherine Martin, who breastfed her three children, said politicians are told “quite categorically” when they’re first elected that they are the only people allowed in the Dáil chamber.

“I think [breastfeeding in the chamber] should be allowed and I’ve written to the ceann comhairle in the Dáil, to the Dáil’s committee on procedure and privileges, and the Cathaoirleach in the Seanad, to the Seanad’s committee on procedure and privileges, to see if they can make the change.”

“Who wouldn’t support this?”

“Why our statistics are so low for breastfeeding is because they are rooted in cultural choices. If we had this changed in our national parliament, it would be a chance to lead and change the culture and it would be a signal by our national parliament for change.”

“I breastfed all my three children. The bond is incredible, and the bond is the bonus.”

“It maybe something we don’t think about. But when you become a TD and you’re elected, you’re given a tour of the building in your first few days, and you’re told quite categorically that you are the only person allowed into this chamber.”

“If you make the decision to breastfeed your child, you should be given the support to do so. Especially moreso now with more women represented.”

Kildare Fianna Fail TD Fiona O’Louhglin, who believes that some allowance should be made in the chambers for politicians who are breastfeeding, said times are changing in Irish politics.

The issue has not arisen before now “possibly because of the lack of women elected - less than 100 hundred in 100 years,” Ms O’Loughlin told

“I certainly believe that some premise in the chamber should be made for mothers who are breastfeeding, especially around voting when presence is mandatory. I would support any such measures.”

Sinn Fein Senator Máire Devine, who breastfed her three children, said she feels a facility for breastfeeding directly outside the Dáil and Seanad chambers would be appropriate.

“As a mother I would want to be able to have the freedom to do it but whether I’d be brave enough to do it on camera is another thing. I breastfed all of my children, I didn’t mind sitting in cafes, restaurants and bars, but I’m not sure, if specifically knowing you were being filmed… I just wouldn’t feel comfortable.”

“For me, the anteroom would be an appropriate area to look at bringing in soft furniture and would accommodate breastfeeding and make women feel comfortable to bring the children in with them.”

“To breastfeed in front of cameras, I couldn’t.”

She added: “If someone was in this position and wanted to bring the issue forward, I would support them 100pc.”

Senator Grace O’Sullivan is the mother of three daughters, who were all born in the Netherlands, which has an 80 pc initiation rate in breastfeeding.

“Traditionally, politics was so heavily male dominated. Now there’s a slow increase in the numbers of women in politics, then possibly there will be more demand for women to have the opportunity to bring their baby in to the Oireachtas and go to the crèche to feed.”

She added: “We’re not in the chamber that often. We’re here three days a week – Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, and you have notice of when you’ll be sitting, so I don’t know if there’s any demand for the current members to bring their babies into the chambers.”

But she added: “Considering that we do expect to have more women in politics in time, in that case I think it’d be great to have this discussion and see can we facilitate the needs of women and see could the Oireachtas be more favourable to women.”

Former Tanaiste, Joan Burton, said she is strongly in favour of breastfeeding.

“Of course that requires access to nice clean warm facilities for mother and baby, and yes that should be avail generally in the Dáil building.”

“We have a reconstruction going on in the Dáil but it should from part of the brief to have those facilities available.”

Senator Alice Mary Higgins said Ireland needs more lactation consultants across hospitals and communities to support women breastfeeding and tackle the low national breastfeeding rate.

“Beastfeeding is an important issue in many workplaces.  You may be aware that currently workplaces are obliged to accommodate breastfeeding for up to six months after birth. However, in most workplaces, although not the Oireachtas, women are entitled to six months of maternity leave which makes the measure somewhat ineffective."

"I strongly support the recommendation from the National Women's Council of Ireland that this be extended to one year in all workplaces as part of an important shift in culture to encourage and support breastfeeding. I also believe that there is a pressing need for more lactation consultants in both our hospitals and communities to support women breastfeeding.”

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