Thursday 27 June 2019

Breastfeeding: Why are we squandering a natural resource that benefits us all?

There is something wrong when you have to bring in nappies but formula is given out free

The theme of this year's World Breastfeeding Week is Breastfeeding: Foundation for Life, in recognition of how important breastfeeding is to a baby's future. Stock Image
The theme of this year's World Breastfeeding Week is Breastfeeding: Foundation for Life, in recognition of how important breastfeeding is to a baby's future. Stock Image

Wendy Grace

What if there was a product that you could give your baby that would decrease their risk of death in the first year, and reduce the risk of serious illnesses such as asthma, Crohn's and diabetes? Taking the same wonder product would make your baby 50pc less likely to be obese, benefit their IQ and reduce their mother's risk of ovarian and breast cancer, heart disease and postpartum depression.

Not only that but this product would save you thousands of euro. The problem is this liquid gold has a drawback: it doesn't stand to benefit shareholders' billions; just each mum and her breastfed baby.

The theme of this year's World Breastfeeding Week is Breastfeeding: Foundation for Life, in recognition of how important breastfeeding is to a baby's future. If breastfeeding rates improved globally, it could prevent one in seven childhood deaths globally; that's 823,00 lives and 20,000 maternal deaths, while preventing economic losses of $302bn.

It's no wonder increasing breastfeeding rates is a UN sustainable development goal; feeding exclusively for six months and complementing solids to two years and beyond is recommended by the WHO and Unicef.

Countries such as Norway get it: 98pc of babies there are breastfed on discharge from hospital. In Ireland, only a little over a half of babies are being breastfed on leaving hospital, and by six months, that figure drops to 12pc.

So do Norwegian women have wonder breasts? What is Ireland doing wrong? Norway's rates were almost as bad as Ireland's in the 1970s but a grassroots campaign led by women who insisted on information being produced and promoted, as well as setting up networks of support, started a seed change. Shared maternity and paternity leave is a year, and advertising of formula is not allowed.

For me, breastfeeding in the beginning was not easy. I cried down the phone to a stranger, a volunteer breastfeeding counsellor from La Leche Ireland who advised and encouraged me. I wanted to feed my son so badly but was not sure how I could continue with the agony I felt during every feed.

Then along came my breastfeeding angel. I was only told about the HSE lactation consultant after a desperate phone call to a public health nurse, who nonchalantly told me this woman existed. She was our lifesaver. I met her privately (for free), and after that weekly at breastfeeding support groups. I was lucky to make that phone call; lucky to sound desperate enough; lucky that there happened to be this service in my area.

But having such disconnected and patchy support is not good enough. Something has gone wrong in Irish maternity hospitals when you have to bring in your own nappies but formula is doled out for free. A pathetic amount of investment is being spent on breastfeeding support while millions is being spent on bottles, teats, and sterilising equipment, and yet you have to pay to rent a hospital-grade breast pump.

I wonder how much time is spent making up bottles, and cleaning and sterilising them compared to helping mums get started giving their babies the first few feeds of colostrum, the most powerful natural immune booster your baby can get.

No mother should be made to feel bad for her feeding choices, but by failing to describe the implications of artificial feeding, we deprive mothers of making an informed choice. Framing it as one of two equivalent choices does a disservice to women and their babies.

Infant formula meets basic nutritional needs, but it cannot contain the living cells, enzymes and hormones that change hourly, even creating antibodies tailored for your baby when she is sick.

The usual response when you list the scientific evidence for the benefits of breastfeeding is that you are trying to make formula-feeding mothers feel guilty. The sad reality is that often this anger comes from mums who wanted to breastfeed 'but'... but they were let down by the system. Women are the last people who should be blamed; profiteering formula companies and governments who lack the political will to resource hospitals and healthcare professionals have a lot to answer for.

It's hard to get the message out there because formula is big business. Ireland exports 10pc of the world's formula valued at €1.5bn. The $70bn global industry uses aggressive marketing campaigns to target exhausted and vulnerable women. The profit and power of this industry is coming before the health, well-being, and lives of babies.

The implications for long-term health make this a public health crisis, yet there seems to be little political will to act. For every €1 invested in breastfeeding, €35 is created in economic returns. We need to start providing adequate support in hospitals, GP surgeries, and public health centres. We need to invest in comprehensive breastfeeding programmes that start during pregnancy and seamlessly continue when the baby is born.

The overwhelming majority of mothers want to breastfeed. But when they run into issues they are offered little or no help, or told 'just give the baby a bottle'. So while we wait for the Government policy and our culture to catch up, what can mothers do? Link into support networks on Facebook, connect to groups such as Cuidiu and La Leche before and after your baby arrives. Here you will find no vested interests, no money to be made, no judgment - just passion for promoting one of the best resources we have to look after our babies.

Women have to demand change and empower one another.

Breastfeeding is almost always the best way to feed a newborn, but without the right supports in place it can feel impossible for some women. We should be working towards an Ireland that makes breastfeeding possible, practical and enjoyable for more women and their babies.

Wendy Grace is a journalist and broadcaster with Spirit Radio

Sunday Independent

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