The HSE is making breastfeeding progress, but Sabina Higgins is right when she says something huge needs to happen. At the annual ‘latching on’ event at Áras an Uachtaráin last Friday, which heralded the start of National Breastfeeding Week, she said our breastfeeding rate was embarrassing.
Very few women exclusively breastfeed for the first six months, but the problem with pointing this out is it sounds judgmental.
You can harp on about the health benefits for mama and baba until the cows come home, but how about tweaking the ‘breast is best’ message and instead pump out the ‘breast is so much easier’ idea?
The HSE has been working hard, with some success, at convincing women. It says that in 2021 nearly six in 10 mothers were breastfeeding at the first public health nurse visit. An increase of 5pc from 2019.
Impressive, even if the European average is 80pc. But there I go sounding judgmental for including that.
There are no up-to-date figures on long-term feeding – but in 2013, statistics from the World Health Organisation showed that 15pc of babies in Ireland were exclusively breastfed until six months, compared to a 38pc global average and a 25pc European average.
The question is why?
Historically speaking, breastfeeding declined in the 1970s, when bottles of formula were considered nutritionally superior.
My mum had five kids in that decade, and was advised to go for formula. With bottles comes getting babies into routines, so there is a hangover of norms here.
I gave birth in two other countries, as well as in Ireland – and maybe we don’t give new mothers the time and space to do little else but be with their baby.
But we like to schedule, to pump milk, to get a routine in place, to return to work before a year – when really it’s simple: what is needed to make breastfeeding easy is to give a baby constant access to their mama’s body.
The information provided by the HSE is, in fact, excellent, with answers to every breastfeeding hiccup online – leaking boobs, oversupply, cluster feeding.
You can email and a professional will reply within 48 hours.
I tried with a fake query and got an extremely useful reply from a lactation specialist in 16 hours. Very impressive. Though if I was a fretful breastfeeding beginner, a phone number to call would be ideal.
The HSE says they’ve recruited 20 more infant feeding and lactation posts – with more to come – and all the maternity hospitals now have a specialist lactation support service available.
The ultimate would be if a lactation specialist was available to visit any new mum struggling – and it is a bit of a struggle – to get breastfeeding sorted.
The information is there for women, but why not a national campaign to convince everyone else? That, of course, includes men, employers and family members – teaching them how to bend over backwards to help and accommodate new mothers, to free them up to focus on their baby.
A campaign would also highlight how breastfeeding costs you, the mother, nothing, how you are more free and easy with a breastfeeding baba, as you don’t need to sterilise bottles.
And a campaign might get across that magic closeness between mum and infant. A newborn snuggled into their mama’s breast, like they are still attached inside the body, a bigger baby clutching the boob like a bottle, eyes staring fixedly ahead, a one-year- old who can point, grab, and demand ‘milky’.
When I see women breastfeeding, I feel a pang for it – and yet I remember the panic at the start, the feeling that I was doing it all wrong.
I was living abroad, but was lucky – as I had a friend who was a nurse and who visited me in hospital and laid it out straight for me: that it takes effort to learn. And yes, it’s a slog. The baby feeds constantly, but once you are in your stride you will love it. Your nipples may bleed: this is not normal, go see a lactation specialist. If you stay with it for the first few weeks, breastfeeding will get so easy – it will save you much hassle and money and bring you much joy.
It’s an instant mood improver for mama and baby. My friend was right: thank you, Bridget.
What every woman needs is a Bridget to give them information, especially with their first child.
Consultant neonatologist and paediatrician Professor Afif EL Khuffash is also a lactation specialist at the Rotunda Hospital in Dublin.
After carrying out research on barriers to breastfeeding, he told me that one of their conclusions was a different approach to communicating information to mothers on breastfeeding was needed.
He said they are starting a working group aimed to more accurately describe normal feeding patterns.
However, to have the time to properly relay information, more nursing and midwifery staff are needed.
And this is key. You can read information on how a newborn may need to feed constantly, but nothing beats the assurance you get from someone with real-life experience standing in front of you.
Prof EL Khuffash advises women to keep their baby close and not hanker for routine too early.
He said: “I heard this great quote: ‘the baby’s environment for the early months is the mother’s body’ – and yet society has created this notion that you must put your baby down. Really, being close to the mother is what the baby needs.”
Maybe this is the big change Sabina is saying needs to happen. That we need to better create a culture that supports breastfeeding.
Breastfeeding is a lovely, but it’s a full-time job – and we need to make it easier for women to be able to do it.