Riona the trailblazer
A photo of Tralee woman Riona O'Connor breastfeeding her four-year old son Garvan went viral last week. Fergus Dennehy spoke to her about how this is helping to break the stigma still attached to breastfeeding
She may immediately try to laugh or shrug off the idea that she is any sort of pioneer or trendsetter, but this Irish modesty does not fit into with Tralee woman Riona O'Connor's current position - that of a breastfeeding trailblazer for thousands of woman across the world.
Riona grabbed headlines and was the talk of social media all over the world last week after a photo after she posted a photo to Facebook of her breastfeeding Garvan, her four-year-old son in public on his birthday.
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The photo - posted by the 38-year-old to her 'Riona - The Unnatural Woman' Facebook page which has almost 120,000 likes and 125,000 followers - prompted a huge influx of supportive comments from women and fellow mothers from all over the world, including far flung places such as New Zealand.
Their message was simple: 'Thank you for helping to normalise breastfeeding.'
For all the supportive comments though, there were still those who criticised the Oakpark native, saying that four years old was far too old to still breastfeeding.
"That's sick. A kid needs to grow and cut the cord. They can't be babies forever," said one woman commenting on the photo, while another waded into the debate by saying:
"There comes a time in a child's life that even the bottle and pacifier need to be taken away. I am all for breastfeeding but I do think there is a cut off point."
For Riona, these negative comments only serve to prove her main point which is that breastfeeding is not something which should still have a negative, shameful stigma attached to it.
Speaking to The Kerryman last Thursday morning, the actress and comedian said that she doesn't care about the backlash that the photo has received from some quarters and that as long as four-year-old Garvan is healthy and happy, that's all that matters to her.
"So, it was never my plan to even breast feed or continue to do it, I was just always of the mindset that I will do whatever I can and if it works, it works and if it doesn't, it doesn't and that's grand," she said.
"It turns out that it did work and then my son, Garvan, he never really showed any particular interest in wanting to stop and obviously, when he started having food, he started having less breast milk, so now a lot of the time, it [breastfeeding] is mainly just for comfort."
"For me personally, I find it's such a good comfort for him. If he's struggling with anything, like in pre-school or just something that happened with other kids or he fell, a breast feed, literally for five seconds, and it's a complete switch around. I call it the reset button. It completely changes how he is, it's instant comfort and he's back into life again, no bother," she continued.
"There are so many other benefits. Like health benefits with his immune system. There are lots of studies that have shown that the health benefits are still there up until the older ages. I think a lot of people probably thought there was no benefits past a certain age, but actually the most recent studies show that there is. It's wonderful."
Continuing, she said that her case is not an outlier and that plenty of women out there breastfeed their children long past the traditional 'norm'.
"What is becoming a lot more sort of open and out there nowadays is extended breastfeeding and natural term weaning. I get messages from thousands of women who have breastfed past the age of one, two, three four even so it is actually a lot more common than you think but you just don't really see it."
Sadly though, for all the positive breast feeding stories she receives messages, there are still so many cases of women being stigmatised by society for what she says should be seen as a completely natural thing.
"The stories I get from women, the horrible comments and disapproving looks from family where the family are openly against breastfeeding and so the women feel like they can't breastfeed in their own house and then they can't breastfeed in public either. These stories are so, so common and I just couldn't believe it."
"There is still a stigma attached it. It's seen as weird and a bit hippy-ish. We've had so many years of boobs just being about sex but there's more to them than that," she laughed, "their primary function is to feed your baby."
"So it seems really strange to me that people are offended by it when actually, now that I am in the situation myself where I am feeding, it's not a big deal, it's just something you do. It's not this big drama at all."
Similar to the increase in people talking about the importance of mental health in the last number of years, Riona said she's delighted that something as natural as breastfeeding is finally getting its moment in the sun - quite literally - as more and more people have become open to public breastfeeding and talking more and more about what was once considered a taboo subject.
"Even go back 20 years and too see anybody breastfeeding, even a newborn, was a little bit shocking and you'd think it was a little bit out of the ordinary whereas nowadays because more people are doing it and more people are seeing it, it's less of an issue. Fast forward another 20 years and we'll get to the place where breastfeeding a child, no matter what age, is just no big deal."
"It's all about exposure. Just seeing other people do it makes it feel like it's normal. With the photo I shared, I have gotten thousands of messages and comments from people and the vast majority, like 99.9 per cent of them are really positive and encouraging. They are all from women thanking me for normalising it, because it is, it's so normal but just don't see it."
One example of how more exposure to the subject can help reduce stigma came a few years ago in Longford when Riona was working on a pilot in a remote bar.
"We were doing a scene in this little pub and all the auld fellas were the extras. They all came in and like they're all like 70's and 80's, the guys that come in for the one pint you know, and sure I had to pump for my little fella and sure they'd never seen anyone breastfeeding, they'd never seen a pump before and they were just like 'Jaysus, what's going on here now? What's yer wan doing over here now in the corner?'.
"That was on day one and by day two, we were chatting about it, they didn't care, they weren't bothered by it, it was grand. That's what I'm saying, the more people see, the more they realise that it's actually grand like," she finished.
As for her immediate future, Riona has her hands full with Garvan and newly arrived four-month-old Rory - who thankfully seem get on very well together, much to Riona's relief!
For more from Riona, you can follow her over on Facebook on her 'Riona - The Unnatural Woman' page where she posts body positive videos, songs and messages.