Hundreds of women have gathered in Belfast for the second annual Breastival event to celebrate World Breastfeeding Week.
Over 1,500 people from across Ireland and Scotland registered for Saturday’s event at the Ulster Museum in the south of the city which promoted the messages: “normalise, celebrate and support”.
Some 191 babies and toddlers were breastfed during the ‘Big Latch On’, while politicians took part in a Politics of Milk discussion. This heard calls for MPs to adopt a World Health Organisation (WHO) code on the marketing of breastmilk substitutes and for MLAs to help get legislation in place to promote and protect breastfeeding in public, which has been stalled since Stormont collapsed in January 2017.
Jennie Wallace (37) from east Belfast and Jennifer Hanratty from east Belfast via Dundalk decided to set up Breastival in 2017 after DUP MP Sammy Wilson made controversial remarks about breastfeeding.
In 2016 the East Antrim MP caused controversy when he said there was an element of voyeurism in women wanting to breastfeed in the House of Commons before amending his comment to “exhibitionism”.
The DUP distanced itself from the comments at the time, saying Mr Wilson was expressing a personal view and that it was “vital we continue to promote breastfeeding and ensure adequate public awareness of its benefits”.
“We started Breastival last year as a reaction to Sammy Wilson’s comments and because we wanted to do something more than the online support groups,” Jennie said.
“Breastfeeding rates in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland are some of the worst in the world.”
She added: “It’s cultural thing and comments from our politicians don’t help and feed into that culture. It’s generational too. If you haven’t seen your relatives doing it then getting that process started is difficult.”
Ms Wallace said celebrity endorsement of breastfeeding from the likes of US model Christine Teigen and positive media coverage like a recent Dispatches documentary was helping change attitudes in Ireland.
“It’s not about saying breast is best and being militant, it’s about normalising it and saying its nothing strange, startling or magical is happening, it’s just normal,” she said.
“Breastfeeding is normal but it’s not always easy for people. It can have its challenges so we are saying whether you have breastfeed your baby for six day, six months or six years we are saying, well done.
Teacher Alison McAlea (28) from Strabane was at the event with her son Daniel and her friends from the Colin Sure Start breastfeeding support group.
“Support keeps you going and makes you not want to give up,” she said.
“You want to see everyone at the class the following week, and other people’s experiences really help you out if you come across a stumbling block.”
Aisling Toner (36) from Belfast was feeding baby daughter Mattie as she spoke to The Irish Times.
Ms Toner explained she was anxious about breastfeeding in public until she joined the Sure Start programme.
“I had some problems until I started going to our wee group,” she said.
“We were doing an exercise class together and it was the first time I was out in a cafe with other breastfeeding mums so it has been from then.”
Claire Allcutt, chair of Baby Feeding Law Group Ireland, based in the Republic, said it want to raise awareness of what she described as inappropriate marketing of breastmilk substitutes.
“Breastfeeding is very important, supporting all parents is very important and the protection of optimal feeding is often overlooked,” she said.
Dr Maria Herron from sister organisation Code Monitoring Northern Ireland said she was concerned about the marketing of formula and other baby products.
“We want to make people aware of the impact formula companies are having on breastfeeding,” she said.
“We want parents to have informed choices based on scientific fact.
“We have a bottle feeding culture across the island of Ireland so what we are trying to do in calling for the full implementation of the WHO international code is to try to protect mothers, breastfeeding babies and also babies who are formula fed.”