RECENT RESEARCH showing that Irish children who are breast-fed and weaned on to solid foods later have a much lower risk of obesity adds to an already burgeoning canon on the benefits of breastfeeding. Using data from the Growing Up in Ireland study, researchers from the Economic and Social Research Institute found that children breast-fed for three to six months were 38 per cent less likely to be obese at nine years of age compared to exclusively formula-fed children.
About one in four nine-year-olds in the Republic is overweight or obese. The pattern is similar for three-year-olds: 19 per cent are overweight and 6 per cent obese. It is well established that babies who are breast- fed gain weight more slowly than those who are bottle fed; rapid weight gain early in life is linked to the development of obesity later in childhood.
Yet we have the lowest breastfeeding rate in Europe. About half of mothers leave maternity hospitals here exclusively breast-feeding their babies; this compares with 99 per cent in Norway and some 93 per cent in Austria. There is also a marked socioeconomic divide with better-educated women more likely to breastfeed (63 per cent) than less well-educated women (27 per cent). And a majority of mothers here do not adhere to World Health Organisation guidelines to introduce solid food only when a child is six months old.
Why do Irish mothers lag so markedly behind their European peers when it comes to breastfeeding? It is hardly due to a lack of health promotion activities. But despite ongoing campaigns to encourage breastfeeding and a five-year government strategy, since 2005 only an additional 2 per cent of mothers are feeding their babies with their own milk.
Perhaps there is now an opportunity to to deploy a a more sophisticated message with reduced resources. If the constant reminder of the many short- and long-term benefits of breastfeeding has not worked, is it time to also apply social media strategies to new campaigns? And is it an opportunity to acknowledge to pregnant women that breastfeeding may be time-consuming, sleep-depriving and for some, technically difficult?
It may be opportune too to also acknowledge the feelings of mothers who choose not to breastfeed when they experience the disapproval of what they refer to as “the milk mafia”. A constant barrage of coldly presented clinical guidance may be unhelpful for some.