Thursday 17 October 2019

'Breastfeeding is one of the pure joys of motherhood'

Mammy's boy:
A contented
six-month-old
Baxter with
mum Katie
Gunn. Picture
by Ronan Lang
Mammy's boy: A contented six-month-old Baxter with mum Katie Gunn. Picture by Ronan Lang

By Katie Gunn

The star of Confessions of a Shopaholic Isla Fisher has admitted that she is "addicted" to breastfeeding. The actress, who is still feeding her 16-month-old daughter Olive, joked that she will only stop when her daughter leaves home and goes to university -- she simply can't bear the thought of giving it up.

I can relate to that. My first child, Kaya, was born in 2004, and having been fortunate enough not to have experienced any problems, I continued to feed her until she was almost two -- and I only stopped as I was almost five months pregnant with her brother Marley. I hadn't pre-planned feeding to that length; the truth was, that once I had started I simply didn't want to stop.

That's not to say I was a long-term breastfeeding martyr. I had no problem giving a bottle when needed, using a dummy, eating whatever I fancied, or, I must admit, having the odd drink or two. All of which, for me, made the whole process a lot less debilitating.

Currently, I'm breastfeeding my third child Baxter, who is six months old, and am happy to carry on until both he and I are ready to stop.

Many of the positive effects of breastfeeding for mother and child are widely known, such as more rapid bonding, and the numerous health benefits.

Research has shown that children who are breastfed have lower rates of pneumonia, bronchitis, colds, meningitis, asthma, ear infections and sudden infant death syndrome. They are also less likely to become overweight, to develop breast cancer, allergies or diabetes. That's quite a list.

Other advantages include the fact that there are no costs involved, that there are no bottles to be made up daily and brought everywhere the baby goes, and there is no need for emergency planning. Electricity gone? No problem. Locked out of the house? Go to a cafe. It's one less thing to worry about.

Another added benefit is the fabulous fact of quick and easy weight loss for the mother, which I can certainly attest to.

In fact, and forgive me for this, no matter how much I eat whilst breastfeeding I simply cannot put on weight. It is estimated that breastfeeding burns approximately 600 calories every day -- just imagine how much gym-time that equates to.

It seems, however, that not all young women in Ireland are swayed by the long list of benefits. A new survey carried out at the Coombe hospital -- due to be published in Public Health Nutrition later this year -- found that only one of the 401 Irish women taking part in the study was exclusively breastfeeding her baby for six months.

The result of the study mirrors previous reports that put Ireland at the bottom of the European ladder for breastfeeding rates, with only a paltry 3pc of mothers still breastfeeding by the time their child is four months old.

Perhaps of even more concern is that only 31pc of Irish mothers choose to breastfeed their babies at all, in comparison to 99pc of mothers in Norway, and 98pc in Denmark.

The World Health Organisation's guidelines are that we should exclusively breastfeed for six months and then continue feeding for up to two years.

So why do so many Irish mothers choose to bottle-feed, when only 1pc of our Norwegian counterparts do?

Lack of support, initial pain, and sleepless nights are often touted as reasons for mothers turning to the bottle, and while this may be the case for those who try to breastfeed but tragically find that they can't, these women do not account for those who make that initial decision that they'd rather bottle-feed than breastfeed.

This latest study found that the greatest barriers to Irish mothers was embarrassment about breastfeeding in a bottle-feeding culture and a lack of encouragement from families.

So it would seem that the main barrier here in Ireland is simply our mind-set.

Having talked to numerous mothers over the years on the subject, I would have to agree. One woman told me she wouldn't breastfeed as "it makes your boobs saggy" (not true -- see panel); one said "my husband doesn't want to share them"; and rather sadly, another said "my mother-in-law says it's disgusting".

Our attitude here is heavily influenced by advertising that promotes bottle feeding, which naturally leads to more mothers choosing this option, which in turn standardises bottle-feeding among friends, family and the next generation.

While the Scandinavian countries have little or no formula advertising, in Ireland a huge proportion of the health information for babies is provided for, or sponsored by, formula and baby food manufacturers.

Sign up to one of the many online pregnancy sites or baby clubs and you are bombarded with coupons, free samples and product information. Mothers do not spend money on breastfeeding, so there is nothing to sell -- and therefore no money to be made from it.

Perhaps we need to think harder about some of the small steps that can make a real difference. At the moment, most mothers are too embarrassed to feed in public, and many feel the same among friends and family. When was the last time you saw a mother breastfeeding?

Over the years I have fed my three children discreetly; everywhere from supermarket car parks to playgrounds, shopping centres and restaurants. All I have ever experienced when feeding in public is a quick glance, and an even quicker glance away, or an encouraging smile from another mother.

By challenging people's perceptions and showing those who are a little more inhibited that it is, in fact, a natural and normal way of life, perhaps more mothers would follow suit.

And they have outspoken role models in the form of actresses Isla Fisher, Salma Hayek and Angelina Jolie, who all publicly promote breastfeeding. My advice to soon-to-be mothers would be to just try it -- to whatever extent feels right for you. It does not have to be an all or nothing choice.

If you decide it is just not working for you, then you can simply stop. Nothing lost. But just look at all you have to gain if you suddenly discover, as I did, that it is one of the pure joys of motherhood.

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