Did you know that breastfeeding rates in Ireland are among the lowest in Europe? Midwife and breastfeeding consultant Clare Boyle examines the reasons for Irish low breastfeeding levels and suggests ways to help new mothers nurse with success.
Every year around the time of National Breastfeeding Week in October, we hear the statistic that Ireland has the lowest breastfeeding rates in Europe and pregnant women. Some new mums might wonder why this is and what they can do to make sure that they will succeed in breastfeeding their babies. The World Health Organisation recommends that all babies are exclusively breastfed for the first six months and then continue to breastfeed up to and beyond a year to ensure the baby reaches his or her full potential.
Breastfeeding is without doubt the premium way to feed your baby – the research time and time again shows that breastfed babies are healthier and thrive on their mother’s milk and yet many Irish women are still opting not to breastfeed and if they do choose to, most don’t continue past three months.
The statistics say it all
In order to understand how unique the breastfeeding situation is in Ireland, we need to look at the numbers. Statistics show that only 55% of all Irish mums will start out breastfeeding. Compared to other European nations we can see that we are far below our European counterparts – the UK initiation rate is 81%, Norway 99% and Italy 80%. But the low initiation rate is only part of the problem because the Irish breastfeeding rate then actually decreases further as time goes on.
According to the Irish National Infant Feeding Study (2008), by two weeks of age only 35% of mothers were still breastfeeding and at four months of age the breastfeeding the rate had decreased again to 16%, this means that nearly three quarters (71%) of women who had planned on breastfeeding had stopped and by six months, almost all babies in the country were not being breastfed (97%); this is a far cry from the WHO recommendation that all babies should be breastfed for six months.
However, the research also reveals that 80% of the women who gave up breastfeeding said they actually didn’t want to give up at all. This shows that crucially, women are not giving up purely out of choice, that something else is happening that makes them feel they have to stop breastfeeding before they really want to. What is going on?
The answer quite simply is our culture. Breastfeeding rates have been low in Ireland for the last 50 or so years with the result that we have not been a breastfeeding nation for several generations. Because of this, we have lost our breastfeeding know-how and culture. What this means is that most people in Ireland don’t know the first thing about breastfeeding, simple things such as what is normal and what isn’t normal for a breastfeeding mother and baby.
The level of ignorance concerning breastfeeding is so extensive and embedded that myths and misconceptions abound; inaccurate advice is very often passed off as fact. This cultural ignorance is at the root of why so many women give up breastfeeding.
Support is vital
In the early days, a new mother is vulnerable and she needs copious amounts of support and encouragement in the form of correct advice regarding breastfeeding, this is absolutely essential. Unfortunately, this normally doesn’t happen and it completely undermines her efforts.
The scenario that I have seen unfold many times goes like this; a new mum will start off with a poor understanding of how breastfeeding is meant to be, she is then bombarded with conflicting and incorrect information from family, friends and medical personnel, it is often well-meaning advice, but it is incorrect all the same. Over the ensuing days and weeks the mother becomes overwhelmed, confused and ultimately stressed and often, as the research shows, she will give up breastfeeding.
Women who have tried to breastfeed and not succeeded should not blame themselves because it’s not their fault, it’s the culture! In short, if you are Irish and want to breastfeed the odds are stacked against you. Difficult as it may be to read all of this, it is important to acknowledge that this is the reality of breastfeeding in Ireland because then you can do something about it. You can empower yourself and stack the odds in your favour.
Research shows that learning about breastfeeding before the baby arrives will increase your chances of having a positive breastfeeding experience. I know how vitally important having the basic breastfeeding information is, as I have been teaching pregnant women and their partners about breastfeeding for over ten years.
Suggestions to help you have a successful breastfeeding experience:
1. Take a preparing for breastfeeding class before your baby arrives – there is information that you absolutely need to understand in order to breastfeed with confidence, things such as how often your baby will be feeding, how long a feed will last, how to make sure you have a good latch, how to make sure your baby is getting enough milk just to name a few.
This knowledge will not magically pop into your head after the baby is born, so it is essential that you know it beforehand. I think it is also very helpful for your partner to attend the class as well, as they will be your main support after the birth and it makes an enormous difference if he has the basic know-how as well.
2. Educate the people who will be supporting you about normal breastfeeding – this way you will ensure that they know how to help and support you in the early days while breastfeeding is getting established.
3. Recognise that breastfeeding is a learned skill and that it takes time to master – so be sure to allow yourself the time and space to work on learning this new skill. Know that for the first few weeks it is normal to feel overwhelmed (every day!) and that just because you feel this way it doesn’t mean that you are doing it wrong. Be kind to yourself as you learn all about being a new mum, it is the biggest thing that will ever happen to you and you have not done it before so it is totally okay and normal to be unsure and overwhelmed about it all.
4. If you are having a breastfeeding problem be sure to get help as soon as possible – you are new at breastfeeding and as it is important to both you and the baby that it goes well so if you are having any problems or concerns make sure you get help immediately.
Problems can sometimes escalate quite rapidly and then breastfeeding could be in jeopardy; don’t take any chances and get help asap. The best help you can get is an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) – they are the professional experts who specialise with breastfeeding problems and issues, some hospitals will have them on staff and in their breastfeeding clinics or you can contact one in private practice.
To find an IBCLC, go to the private practice page on the Association of Lactation Consultants Ireland website www.alcireland.ie/.
5. Surround yourself with breastfeeding support – there are many forms of breastfeeding support and it is wonderful to connect with other breastfeeding mothers either through breastfeeding support groups or through breastfeeding facebook pages.
Great breastfeeding support groups to connect with:
- La Leche League – mother to mother support groups held throughout the country – La Leche League
- Cuidu – mother to mother breastfeeding support groups held throughout the country – Cuidu
- Friends of Breastfeeding – offer new mothers one to one support in the home with their Breastfeeding Buddy system – Friends of Breastfeeding
- www.facebook.com/Extended Breastfeeding in Ireland – the best breastfeeding facebook page in Ireland
- Clare Boyle BSc,RM, IBCLC – teaches a Preparing for Breastfeeding Class and also has a Breastfeeding Support clinic. For more details see Breastfeeding Consultant
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