Ireland is in a “pathetically low place” when it comes to the number of children being breastfed and must spend money on breastfeeding awareness, Sabina Higgins, the wife of President Michael D Higgins, has said.
Ms Higgins was speaking at the opening of Breastival, a week-long online festival to celebrate and encourage breastfeeding.
It was, she said, “so irresponsible” to neglect public awareness of the importance of breastfeeding while “the aggressive marketing of breast-milk substitutes by commercial interests continues to undermine breastfeeding”.
The Government needed to invest in breastfeeding awareness campaigns, she said.
“The Departments of Health need to budget to advertise the importance of breastfeeding on the public broadcast services, in the media, in leaflets and booklets readily available and displayed publicly in community outlets.
“There needs to be a great public awareness campaign to bring to the understanding of people the vital importance of breastfeeding to the wellbeing of humanity. We need a many-faceted campaign to dramatically increase the number of breastfeeding mothers. We need, as Breastival so well puts it, to ‘normalise breastfeeding’,” she said.
Health professionals, particularly GPs, should also be trained to promote and guide breastfeeding, she said.
“We need the public education and co-operation of schools at all levels. We need the health services, at all levels of the reproduction service, to be required, as part of their training, to know and value all about breastfeeding and be able to recommend, promote and guide its practice. I think this should be a compulsory requirement of the general practitioners profession, as she/he is maybe the first person a woman will have an appointment with.”
There were, she said, “many professionals in the maternity-related services who are doing great work in promoting and helping with breastfeeding. Unfortunately the needed action and resources are not in place.”
Breastfeeding rates in Ireland are among the lowest in the world, with 45 per cent breastfeeding on discharge from hospital here. Norway and Sweden have 90 per cent breastfeeding rates.
The value of breastfeeding to a child’s lifelong nutrition, health and wellbeing had been scientifically proven by the UN, World Health Organisation and Unicef, Ms Higgins said. “Breastfeeding protects children from infections and saves lives. It supports emotional bonding between mothers and babies along with other mental health benefits.”
Traditionally, she said, “and even in our grandmothers’ and great-grandmothers’ time”, almost all children were breastfed, usually for a year.
“Why then are we in Ireland, in Northern Ireland and in the Republic, in such a pathetically low place as regards the percentage of our children being breastfed?” she said.
“We human beings, as top of the chain of life, have in our personal preferences played no small role in insulting Mother Nature by ignoring her gift to us.”
Information on Breastival is available at breastival.co.uk.