You’re more likely to get fed your mother’s milk if you are the child of a drug addict in Sydney than if you are a child in Ireland.
An OECD report last month revealed that Ireland has the worst rate of breast-feeding in the developed world. In a health service that is feeling financial pressures — and given that breastfeeding offers many health benefits to both mothers and children — many doctors believe that strong action is now required to increase breastfeeding rates here. And that would include limiting the access baby formula companies have to maternity wards to market their products.
Dr Colm O’Donnell, a consultant neonatologist, said: “It is difficult to understand why the relationship is so abnormal — some of it is explained by prudishness, some by our warped relationship with our bodies.
“Breastfeeding is analogous to speaking Irish. Once upon a time it was prevalent, then it was seen as a marker of poverty, now it’s been appropriated by the upper middle class in South Dublin,” he said.
Dr Siun Murphy, who set up a website to encourage Irish mothers to breast feed, said many Irish women are denied the chance by a combination of factors including that lack of proper advice and support, facilities, and the heavy marketing of formula.
In Ireland, only 42 per cent of mothers were exclusively breastfeeding on leaving hospital, while in the UK the number is 78 per cent, in Norway it is 99 per cent, and in Denmark it is 98 per cent. “When Irish women hear that the majority of women in other countries breast feed, they seem to think that that is because all of the women there are 5ft 11in, middle-distance running University graduates,” said Dr O’Donnell. “They’re not. The tracksuit-wearing, Superking-smoking, Burger King-eating, ecstasy-taking girls from Frankston breast feed also.”
He added that if some women chose not to breast feed that was their right, but many of those who would like to are given little support and advice; while some are either consciously or subconsciously undermined. “Unfortunately,” he said, “this often comes from their families.”
And this is despite scientific evidence that shows mothers who breast feed have lower risks of breast cancer, ovarian cancer, rheumatoid arthritis and osteoporosis.
The list of health benefits goes on even longer than that, according to Dr Murphy, who has listed many of them on her website. Dr Aoife Mullally, an obstetrician who has written articles on the subject with Dr Murphy, added: “Increasing the number of mothers who initiate breastfeeding is extremely important but we need to go beyond that and ensure that these mothers leave hospital exclusively breastfeeding with the confidence to continue this at home. The message that breastmilk alone is sufficient for the vast majority of babies needs to get out there into maternity hospitals and health centres.”
Dr Murphy added that women who choose not to breastfeed should not be criticised. She said: “We’ve seen many women encounter difficulties that could have been avoided. The end result is that the mother stops breastfeeding before she wants to, and thinks she couldn’t breastfeed when in fact most of the time she was simply not properly supported to be successful,” she said. And she also cautions that a very small number of women may not in fact be able to breast feed.
“We are certainly not saying that you should not use formula if it is medically necessary. We are saying that those circumstances are actually few.”
This article originally appeared in The Sunday Independent here.
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