Urgent action on breastfeeding needed 

Ireland's rates of breastfeeding are amongst the worst in the World. We asked parents what supports they think are needed to make real change.

One hundred years ago most Irish babies were breastfed, now only half are – UNICEF wants to know why. For World Breastfeeding Week parents have been telling us about their experience of breastfeeding, both the benefits and the difficulties.

Josephine Berge breastfeeds her son Walton Andrew in 1910 in Nebraska

This picture was sent in to us by Mum Andrea in Wicklow. It shows Andrea’s great-grandmother Josephine Berge (nee Bently) breastfeeding her grandfather Walton Andrew in 1910 in Nebraska, in the U.S. This incredible photograph is a rare glimpse at what breastfeeding looked like over 100 years ago.

One hundred years ago in Ireland breastfeeding was the norm, as formula – though invented – was not yet commonly available. It was not until the 1950s after the introduction of the Mother and Infant Care Scheme that rates started their sharp decline. Today, Ireland’s breastfeeding rates are amongst the lowest in the world with only 60% of mothers reporting any breastfeeding at discharge from hospital, including combination feeding, according to the latest available data.

Breastfeeding is the biologically normal feeding method for infants and young children and ensures optimum growth and development. Despite the huge body of evidence to back this up, just 49% of Irish infants are being exclusively breastfed at discharge from hospital. This represents an increase year on year over the past decade but it is far from the 100% of babies UNICEF and the WHO recommend should be exclusively breastfed for the first six months of life.

As any woman who has breastfed their baby will tell you, nursing a baby is a difficult, relentless and exhausting task and breastfeeding women need support. We spoke to Mums and Dads about what breastfeeding has been like for their family, and we asked them what might help others struggling to breastfeed.

Health benefits

Baby Zoe is just over one month old and lives in Dublin. Her Mum Eda is breastfeeding. She likes that she can soothe her on demand.

Newborn Zoe is being breastfed on demand

“I have never been needed by someone 24/7 before. Feeding on demand is labour intensive and a skill to fine tune, but it has forced me to slow down and be in the moment. Every time she gains weight, holds my hand, looks up at me or coos, it makes the hard work worth it. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Dad Owen says he feels needed too: “It’s a great way for all of us to bond. When Zoe latches after turning her face a hellfire red from screaming for food it brings an instant relief. As the errand boy I’m more than happy to help fetch water, pillows, the sound machine, new diapers, and so on.”

In fact the health benefits for both Mum and baby are significant.

For the child, breastfeeding reduces the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (cot death), ear infections, diarrhoea, respiratory infections and obesity. It is also possible that it leads to increases in measured intelligence.

Meanwhile, for the Mother, breastfeeding reduces the risk of breast cancer, ovarian cancer and type 2 diabetes.

Bonding with baby

Another huge plus is the opportunity breastfeeding provides for Mum and baby to bond, something that will help the infant have their needs met helping to make them healthy and happy.

Mum Irmak lives in Dublin with Dad Eoin and baby Aurelia, who is breastfed. Photo: aislingfinn.com

Mum Irmak has had a very positive experience: “One of Aurelia’s first words was the word for breast. Every time she says it, I melt inside.”

I really enjoy breastfeeding because it’s a great chance to tell her how much I love her, many times a day. I think about how the milk goes to every part of her body and makes her what she is. It is like the perfect continuation of pregnancy.”

Dad Eoin is supportive: “Breastfeeding forms a really strong bond between mother and baby. As a father it’s an absolute joy to watch my child growing up in her mother’s arms.”

Serotonin rockets

“My serotonin levels rocketed! And they still do every time she feeds” says Sonia Harris Pope (@soniaharrispr).

Sonia has been breastfeeding her daughter Ruby for 19 months. She admits it has been difficult at times: “It hasn’t always been easy. Some days were filled with worry… was my milk actually coming through? Was she getting enough? How did we know it was actually coming out? Conor (Sonia’s husband) held our hands, supported us no matter what and we got there. We’ve had tricky times, and painful, worrying moments with cracked nipples, to bites to horrible lumps. But we kept going because the best advice I received through it all was “just keep feeding”.

Sonia Harris has been breastfeeding her daughter Ruby Harris Pope has for 19 months

Sonia says: “It’s a lovely way to wind down after a mental day and a nice way to start her days too. I still get that natural high and she eats absolutely everything and is thriving, thankfully. Did I get lucky? Absolutely. I don’t take it for granted and though it’s brilliant, it’s not always easy. I’m just glad we stuck to it. Over 19 months later, our happy baby still loves her booby.”

Get help

Mam Aisling has learned to be kind to herself over her first year of breastfeeding. She wants others to learn that too:“Set realistic expectations. You won’t finish learning to breastfeed in hospital – that’s ok, there is plenty of time. It will come. Start small. Try telling yourself ‘We’ll do it for 2 weeks’.

Mum Aisling got expert advice while breastfeeding son Liam for his first year

Aisling’s other key tip: “Take Advice. It’s not rocket science, but it is a new skill and lactation consultants are amazing teachers! If you can access one in hospital all the better. If not, get to your local breastfeeding support group ASAP.”

Husband Paul was pleased to be able to support Aisling and their baby Liam: “Dad’s role is to take care of Mam so she can provide for baby. I felt very grateful that my son was getting excellent nutrition and care. I never felt left out. I was happy to get involved in play and care”.

Mum of two Ranae Von Meding (@ranaevonmeding) agrees that support from those around you is key.

“Breastfeeding our girls hasn’t always been straightforward. In fact at times it’s been the hardest thing in the world to do. Everything that could go wrong for us the first time around, did go wrong. Literally everything.

Ranae is Mum to two daughters, both of whom have been breastfed

“Support is the single thing that got me through. The support of my wife, family and friends, amazing lactation consultant and a local breastfeeding group – we have a WhatsApp group with almost 200 local mamas- we call ourselves the Mammary Mob!! I genuinely don’t take that support for granted and feel very privileged to have had it.”

Support not pressure

Mum of two Sinead felt societal pressure to stop breastfeeding. She told us: “I love my family and friends, but they did not know how to support my decision to breastfeed. In my experience there is incredible pressure out there undermining breastfeeding mothers, it is subtle but it is real and it would have helped me and would help me now, to hear mothers like me talking about it, standing up for themselves and each other.

Mum Sinead, pictured with her daughters, who were both breastfed.

Sadly, there are still a lot of negative stories out there, stereotyping breastfeeding Mothers. My experience with them couldn’t be more different. I have found breastfeeding Mothers surprisingly shy when it comes to talking about their experiences or offering an opinion, and I have been incredibly touched by their gentle kindness, compassion and understanding. Unlike some others, including the media, they never ever made me feel judged.

I wish I could go back and tell myself that caring for a new-born is hard work no matter how you feed them, and that contrary to all the well-intentioned advice you will hear, a bottle will not solve everything.”

Family friendly

Another kind of support the State could help with is the provision of more paid maternity, paternity and parental leave.

Family-friendly policies that protect and promote breastfeeding are an investment. There is compelling evidence that paid leave, access to quality childcare and dedicated nursing time and space can improve breastfeeding rates, resulting in healthier mothers and children, stronger economies and greater human capital.

Mum Sarah has had the unique experience of going on both maternity and ‘paternity’ leave. She and her wife Ger are parents to two boys, Lochlan and Grayson – who was born just this Summer.

Brothers Lochlan and Grayson getting acquainted Summer 2019

Two years ago Sarah gave birth to Lochlan, and breastfed him. This year it was wife Ger’s turn to give birth to little brother Grayson, and to breastfeed him.

Luckily for this family, Sarah’s employer Hubspot recognises the importance of the co-parent, and grants six weeks of paid leave.

This has allowed both of Grayson’s parents to be there with him, supporting each other, as feeding was established.

This kind of forward thinking employer recognises the benefit to the workplace of having a parent who is as focused as possible while at work, because they are facilitated to be as present as possible at home during a life-altering stage like new parenthood.

Sarah says “Unpaid leave is not an option many can take”, adding “I believe many companies could do more for new mums, co-parents and new dads to help support that new family. I know because I’ve been there. But I also know they can’t do it without the support and encouragement from employers and colleagues. My family will be forever grateful for how special this time around was, because we had support from my company and colleagues.”

UNICEF Ireland calls on the HSE to reinstate UNICEF’s Baby Friendly Hospitals Initiative throughout Ireland and to invest in providing more expert advice for new Mothers via Lactation Consultants both in hospital, and in the community. UNICEF continues to advocate for family friendly policies in Ireland and elsewhere around the world. 

UNICEF Ireland would like to thank all of the amazing Mothers who shared their stories with us this World Breastfeeding Week #WBW2019. We recognise your hard work and your generosity.