First of all, I should explain what this “talk about it” thing is. We all know it’s important to keep up with the newest information and evidence out there. It’s important to discuss things, exchange ideas, and listen to each other. So I have decided to dedicate some time every week to discussing what’s new, what’s old, what’s working and what isn’t. I’d love it if you got involved, got a bit passionate about things (while being respectful of course!) and maybe inspired a few people.
What I’m talking about this week is an article from the Sunday Independent Life Magazine (read it here) about breastfeeding in Irish society. It was a really interesting read, a really thorough look at how we see breastfeeding and react to it. Siobhan O’Connor speaks about her own breastfeeding experiences, and talks to other mothers. Unsurprisingly they all come to the same conclusion: breastfeeding can be very difficult, requires confidence and there is not enough appropriate support available for people who choose breastfeeding.
The initial thing that really struck me about this article (apart from the beautiful photos accompanying it) was the first stand out words on the front page and on the by-line: “battle” “guilt””struggle” and “desperation.” I just felt sad that these are the words being associated with breastfeeding for so many women in Ireland, that this is how people describe their experience. It’s not fair on women, on babies, or on wider families. Or on healthcare providers, now that I think of it.
Siobhan O’Connor puts it perfectly “On paper, it sounds so natural. It sounds like the only option any woman would choose, but that’s not always how it happens. It’s every mother’s right to feed her baby the way she chooses, be it breast, formula or pumping. And while, of course, we should be supported if we choose to breastfeed, we should not be chastised or breast-shamed if we choose not to.”
This is my big issue – the shaming. You get shamed for not breastfeeding. You might get shamed for pumping instead of having baby attached to you for every feed (some people actually still enjoy personal space after having kids). You are pretty likely to get shamed for breastfeeding in public (although there are laws protecting breastfeeding in public, read about them here). I hate shaming of any kind. It’s not nice, and I don’t think anyone has the right to judge another person.
However shame seems to be really ingrained in Irish culture. I was shocked to learn from the article that the HSE officially recommends discretion while breastfeeding, as in throwing a scarf around yourself and your hungry bub. But why? Why should the natural function of the breasts be covered up? Why should anyone cover their head or have to hide in a separate room to eat? If that’s what a person wants to do, that is absolutely fine, but it shouldn’t be expected.
An interviewee says “in old Catholic Ireland, we’re made to feel ashamed,” and there might be something to that. The BMJ Global Health journal is mentioned earlier in the article having stated that breastfeeding rates are higher in areas where the proportion of Roman Catholics are lower. Might there be a link between Christian views of sexuality and pleasure, and the sexualisation of women’s breasts, be what’s making people feel so awkward around breastfeeding.
I always knew that the rate of breastfeeding here was shockingly low here, but I never realised that 70% of babies are put straight onto formula. I respect that everyone has the right to feed however they like, but 70% just seems so high. Is every person in that 70% completely educated on breastmilk vs formula milk? If they are, that’s fine, because it means an informed decision has been made. But I’m more than a little bit dubious that our system works that well, that every single person understands the differences. We all know that the HSE is overrun with service users and dangerously understaffed, so how can every pregnant person be getting the full information and the full extent of support in that system?
The article states that in Holles Street, the National Maternity Hospital, there are one and a half lactation consultants for the 9,000 births a year when the recommendation is one full time LC per 3,000 births. To me that doesn’t sound manageable, or efficient, or even really safe. A high workload means high stress, which means mistakes are more likely. And I’m sure the NMH isn’t the only maternity hospital with those kinds of numbers.
So it looks like it isn’t just the exposed feeling, or the odd or rude comments from strangers that is putting new mothers off of breastfeeding. The system that is supposed to help them may be an obstacle instead. The system that is supposed to teach them, build up their confidence, and be there when help is required, doesn’t seem to do that. We all know that breastmilk is liquid gold, but do we know where to get help when there’s trouble producing it?
I am a bit worried that this comes off a bit rambling, and maybe even uninformed. If you think so, let me know! If you have an idea, or an argument, or a story to share, please do in the comments ❀
*image via Getty*