Why don’t Irish women breastfeed?

If you never see other mothers doing it, you’re never going to think it’s normal


The Growing Up in Ireland study shows that that we have abysmally low breastfeeding rates, and once again I am struggling to figure out why Irish women don’t breastfeed. Why many don’t even try, to start with, and why do they stop sooner than the World Health Organisation says is best?

For most of my formative years, and beyond, my knowledge of how babies were fed came from the ESB ad in which the dad gets up to warm the bottle in the middle of the night, as Only You plays in the background. That’s the right way, it suggested, the modern way to do it: men getting involved in the nitty-gritty of fatherhood. I didn’t know any babies. I didn’t have any baby siblings, cousins, nephews or nieces. What better gauge of normality could there be than the national energy provider on the national television channel in between Late Late Show segments?

My knowledge of how babies were born came from the television too. All those writhing, screaming, grunting mothers, people calling for hot water and towels, or in a hospital with machines beeping. “It’s not like that now, of course,” my mother would assure me, worried that the human race would die out if women were afraid of having babies. She had tried to breastfeed me, in 1973, but she had precious little information or support. I “failed to thrive”, and once they put me on bottles I was like a different baby. My parents were ever grateful to baby-milk formula and I’m sure I should be too, since here I am, still thriving.

Bad feminists

As my friends and friends of friends began to have babies and as I started reading blogs of mothers and mothers-to-be, I noticed a pattern. Almost every first-time mother I heard about, whether in Ireland, where I grew up, or in the US, where I live now, ended up in agonising labour for 24 hours followed by an emergency Caesarean. And anything I heard about breastfeeding usually made it sound difficult, painful and ultimately unsuccessful, though it wasn’t something people really talked about. I remember twice, ever, in my youth, seeing a baby breastfed; certainly never in public.

I am generally averse to trying things that are either difficult or painful. I avoid uncomfortable experiences: being given out to, for example, or exercise. I don’t know why it is that I was never really put off breastfeeding, but I always felt it was something I wanted to try, in the far-off day when I might be in a position to do so.

The ESB ad let me know, though, even if nobody else ever inquired about the minutiae of my hopes and dreams, that it certainly wasn’t what was expected of me.

Is it really just that people – Irish people, maybe – don’t like being reminded that humans are mammals too? It ranks us with the animals, and we didn’t invent the wheel, the internet and everything in between to be set back in the farmyard. Surely we’ve evolved past the need to act like that.

People conveniently forget that the human race is still obsessed with sex, that most animalistic of pursuits, and what goes in must come out – and then be fed.

Do we simply think childbirth and whatever comes after it should be, in this day and age, clinical and scientific and devoid of human emotions that are not going to look good on Facebook?

And then, we want women and men to be treated equally, and to shoulder responsibilities equally. Our partners are decent men who want to take an equal share in the childrearing, from the very moment the baby is out. They will leap out of bed just as willingly as the chap in the ad, because everything in our life has to be divided straight down the middle; that’s the only fair way. Only hippies and martyrs would work it any other way. Are we really afraid to acknowledge that feeding the baby is an extension of growing and birthing the baby; simply something the female of the species is better equipped to do? Would that make us bad feminists?


What’s stopping us?

So what is stopping Irish women from breastfeeding? From even beginning to breastfeed, never mind continuing past four months or so? Inconvenience, they say, is cited as a major reason expectant mothers don’t plan to breastfeed.

I breastfed mostly because I was lazy: it was free, it was always there with me, always with the right ingredients and at the right temperature; and because I didn’t know anything about formula, bottles, teats or sterilisers, and didn’t want to have to find out.

Depending on where the baby slept, nobody would even need to get out of bed in the middle of the night. In short, once I got into the swing of it, breastfeeding was the polar opposite of inconvenient. When those women said “inconvenience”, did they really mean embarrassment at the idea of exposing some skin that’s usually covered, the nuisance of nursing bras and draughty corners and not being able to prop the bottle up in the pram as you push the baby along? Or did they mean it’s hard to go out for a night on the lash if you have to feed the baby in person every two hours?

These are generalisations and postulations. Blame abounds: the militant nature of the pro-breastfeeding camp, the not-militant-enough attitude of the medical practitioners (who are afraid to look pushy), lack of support, lack of education.

Nobody wants to pressure you into breastfeeding, nobody wants to make you feel bad if you don’t, or if it doesn’t work out; but you know you should want to because it’s “best for baby”, so you’re expecting the guilt train to show up and welcome you aboard any minute now. Is it all reverse psychology at work? Are we sabotaging ourselves by expecting failure?

Here’s my most simple answer: breastfeeding isn’t seen as normal. People don’t want to do it because it’s not what their friends are doing, or what their mum did, or because they’ve never seen anyone doing it. And the only way to make breastfeeding more normal is to get out there and do it, one mother at a time, gritting your teeth and trying your hardest not to make a big deal of it. Breastfeed where children and teenagers can see you, where your family is watching, wherever a whole crowd of strangers are living their lives.

Do it until nobody bats an eyelid and breastfeeding is just what mothers usually do; and the ESB has to come up with a new ad.

Christine Doran is a writer and editor. She lives outside Washington DC with her husband and two children, and blogs at awfullychipper.com.

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