Why do many Irish mums ignore message that ‘breast is best’?

Having breastfed three babies, I can guess their answers

Breastfeeding is linked to a range of health benefits for newborn babies and mothers. Photograph: Getty Images

Breastfeeding is linked to a range of health benefits for newborn babies and mothers. Photograph: Getty Images

 

Oh, those flighty Irish mums. Why, oh why, won’t they listen to the experts and breastfeed their babies?

A new study by academics from the school of nursing and midwifery in Trinity College Dublin showed that many Irish mothers ignore the message that “breast is best”. The study, published in the Irish Journal of Medical Science, reported that while 56 per cent of Irish mums breastfeed their babies shortly after birth, six months later just 2.4 per cent feed their babies breast milk only – the diet doctors say is best during the first six months of life.

So are Irish mothers just bloody-minded or what?

Hardly. Any aspect of pregnancy/childbirth/mothering sets preachy know-it-alls twitching, and breastfeeding is no exception.

Of course, breastfeeding is ideal for babies and, with practice, it can be cheap and convenient for mums. But it’s a skill that has to be learned, and taught. And the learning doesn’t come easy.

I’d love to read a study that asked Irish mothers – in an empathetic, non-judgmental way – why they shun breastfeeding. Having breastfed three babies myself, I can guess their answers. 1. Breastfeeding is a full-time job. This message was drilled into me by my GP when my first child was born. She was a mum-of-four who had breastfed, so she knew the score: in those early days, escaping to the loo was a triumph, having a shower an elusive dream.

One reason breast milk is so good for babies is that it’s easy to digest. For the breastfeeding mammy, this means her baby needs more feeding than a baby on formula. A colleague who’d breastfed two babies was blunt: “You’re a cow, nothing but a cow.”

Maternal wellbeing

Alongside its low rate of breastfeeding, Ireland has a high rate of C-sections. After the birth of my second child, I listened to a young mother on the same ward cry with pain as she tried to breastfeed after her C-section. Holding her baby meant pressing him against her wound, so breastfeeding was a non-starter. 3. Breastfeeding is thirsty, hungry work. For me, the thirst wasn’t plain old thirst. My mouth and my tongue and my throat and every other organ in my body, every cell dammit, turned to sawdust. It was that kind of thirst.

The hunger never let up. In theory, breastfeeding helps new mothers lose weight. My neighbour, a mother and breastfeeder of three, dismisses this theory as “another one of the lies they tell you”. I did have one friend whose body fat melted away when she breastfed, but I never lost an ounce until after the child was weaned. One of my breastfeeding friends even ate so much that she surpassed her pregnancy weight. Oh dear. 4. Sometimes you simply can’t breastfeed. Having done it with her first baby, my cousin intended to breastfeed her second. But this child folded her lips in a funny way that stopped her from latching on. Home visits from various lactation specialists failed to sort the problem, so my cousin rented a breast pump and fed her milk to her baby by bottle. Me, I would have given up.

Need for instruction

United States

After a few feeble fumbles, the nurse reached over, grabbed me, and, ah, made a necessary adjustment so that the milk was aimed down the baby’s throat. This was exactly the hands-on support I desperately needed.

By rights, breastfeeding mothers should be able to turn to our own mums for guidance. But my mother’s generation was steered away from breastfeeding by their doctors, and some older women are downright hostile. One of my mother’s friends told me breastfeeding was “disgusting” –as I was feeding my baby.

I think time will sort this. As breastfed children grow up and have their own babies, they will presumably see it as the natural option.

In the meantime, any Irish mum who breastfeeds, be it for six months, a week or a day, deserves praise and congratulations. Not to be scolded and told she must do better.

marytfeely@eircom.net Breda O’Brien is on leave

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