Higher age of mothers behind rise in breastfeeding


GREATER NUMBERS of mothers from eastern Europe and women having babies later are the main reasons for an increase in the percentage of women breastfeeding in Ireland, new research to be presented today shows.

Researchers from the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) have analysed the reasons for a 7 per cent increase in breastfeeding rates here between 2005 and 2010.

Dr Aoife Brick and Dr Anna Nolan say about 60 per cent of the increase in breastfeeding from 2004 to 2010 can be explained by the changing characteristics of mothers over this period, suggesting that existing policy initiatives have had only a limited role in the increase.

Prof Richard Layte will tell the Dublin conference Breastfeeding in Ireland 2012: Consequences and Policy Responses that non-Irish women are much more likely to breastfeed, but the longer they are resident here, the lower the chances they would do so.

Women resident for less than five years are 10 times more likely to breastfeed than Irish women, but this falls to six times more likely after six to 10 years and 2.4 times more likely after 11 or more years.

His analysis of data from the Growing Up in Ireland study also shows non-Irish male partners increase the chance that Irish women will breastfeed. Women with a non-Irish partner are 1.4 times more likely to breastfeed than women with an Irish partner.

“One of the most important determinants of how long a woman will breastfeed is the length of maternity leave. Returning to work part-time increases the risk of stopping breastfeeding by 150 per cent; returning full-time increases the risk by 230 per cent,” he said.

Maternity hospital practices also make a difference. Women who give birth in Irish hospitals accredited under the World Health Organisation’s Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative (BFHI) are 11 per cent more likely to initiate breastfeeding after adjusting for the woman’s characteristics. However, this “hospital effect” is short-lived: after one month, women who gave birth in BFHI hospitals are no more likely to breast-feed than other women.

Rates of breastfeeding in the Republic are low by international standards. Just over half of mothers currently initiate breastfeeding in Ireland compared to 81 per cent in the UK and over 90 per cent in Scandinavian states.

Breastfeeding has been shown to reduce the risk of respiratory, ear and gastrointestinal infection in infants and there is emerging evidence of longer-term benefits such as a lower risk of obesity and cardiovascular disease. It has been suggested that exclusive formula feeding currently costs €12 million a year in extra healthcare costs for treating infections in infancy alone.

Commenting on their research, the authors say “the temporary effect of the BFHI suggests women need more support, advice and encouragement once they leave hospital if breastfeeding is to be sustained”. This is particularly true of younger mothers with lower levels of education, they will tell today’s conference.