Saturday 18 August 2018

Dr Ciara Kelly: It's time we all accepted that breast is best

Dr Ciara Kelly
Dr Ciara Kelly
We are massively out of step with breastfeeding trends in Europe

Ciara Kelly

What is it with us and breastfeeding?

It's really no surprise that we have the lowest rate of breastfeeding in the world - because we're so very weird about it. What has inspired this rant you may ask? Well on Newstalk Breakfast recently I was talking about the new baby feeding rooms in Dublin Airport, and I asked why we needed them? Why we needed to tuck breastfeeding women away in a milking parlour when it should be perfectly comfortable, welcome and indeed normal for them to feed anywhere they like in the airport?

Now I should point out I'd gotten the wrong end of the stick and the DAA contacted us to explain that these are not breastfeeding rooms - although clearly women are free to breastfeed in them, as they are elsewhere throughout the airport. These are general baby feeding rooms that offer a child-friendly space along with bottle warming and microwave facilities to make parents' journeys through the airport a little easier - so good on them - but that's not why I'm writing this! I'm writing because of the responses we got on the item.

There was a healthy smattering of support for breastfeeding wherever you liked but there was also a deluge of people - both men and women - who simply don't believe that breastfeeding is acceptable anywhere that it can offend their precious eye.

People leapt to tell us stories of women flaunting themselves by simply feeding their infant somewhere in their vicinity. One woman described how she was in someone's home having lunch in mixed company and a woman breastfed her toddler instead of using one of the 'four empty rooms at the back of the house'. She went on to say it was 'a BIT much' in her opinion. The capitals are hers not mine.

But why is it a bit much? If you gave the baby a bottle of cow's milk would that be a BIT much? Or if you spoonfed them a mushy banana - would that be a BIT much? It seems to me it's escaped some people's notice that human milk is actually the natural food for human infants and has been used for millennia.

The fact that we've somehow, through prudery, snobbery or sexualisation, detached breasts from their primary and very important function and turned them into things that should be seen only as ornamental or indeed not seen at all, is simply bizarre. Many of us in healthcare bemoan the lack of support for new mums trying to breastfeed when their babies are tiny.

The lack of midwives, the lack of public health nurses, the lack of a granny who breastfed herself in helping Irish new mums get started, are all seen as big barriers to us increasing our breastfeeding rates in this country.

And be under no illusion they're extraordinarily low. In many other European countries the rate of women breastfeeding at six weeks post-delivery is 99pc and at six months 90pc. In Ireland those rates are 14pc and 4pc. We're massively out of step. And I don't think we can explain it away by HSE staff numbers. In developing countries with terrible health systems, the rates of breastfeeding are in line with the rest of Europe.

I think the reason we don't breastfeed is mainly down to attitude. Our background of poverty historically meant women in the 1960s and 1970s embraced formula as a way of differentiating themselves from the poor and that, coupled with our own brand of peculiarly prudish Victorian Catholicism - so different to that of southern European Catholic countries - resulted in a terror of women's breasts being seen lest they somehow corrupted us all.

So alas, Irish children and indeed their mums continue to be deprived of the advantages that breastfeeding offers nutritionally, emotionally and physically - because we still feel that there's something inherently dirty, sexual or repellent about it that we simply can't deal with.

We've moved forward in many ways on the prudish front about breasts, indeed they're now used to advertise all sorts, but we remain disconnected from their actual primary function - feeding babas - and that in my opinion IS a BIT much.


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