Dr Andrea Fitzgerald
Ireland has one of the lowest breastfeeding rates in Europe, with approximately 50 per cent of women breastfeeding when they leave hospital, compared to, for example, 99pc in Norway and 84pc in Britain. On the whole, Irish mums also stop breastfeeding far earlier than their European counterparts.
Research is yet to find any significant socio-economic or health reasons for the differences in breast-feeding rates.
However, on talking to Irish women, both in my role as a paediatrician, and as a mother, it is clear that there is a cultural bias against breast-feeding.
I think the reasons for this are complex but in part are due to: a fear of women ‘exposing themselves’ in public; (often wildly inaccurate) theories that formula-fed babies gain weight and sleep better than their breastfed peers; concerns that women will become ‘slaves’ to their baby; a desire for women to get their life, body and job back on track.
The World Health Organisation recommends that all babies are exclusively breastfed for the first six months, and continue to be offered breast-milk, along with other food and drink, for at least two years. The Department of Health and Children seconds this recommendation.
Why is there such a push to improve our breast-feeding rates? Well, it’s because research shows that breast-feeding is better for babies, for mothers, for society and the environment.
There are really very few situations in which formula feeding is the preferred option for a mother or baby.
Breastfeeding promotes a baby’s sensory and cognitive development, and stimulates the proper development of the mouth and jaw.
It also reduces their risk of suffering from stomach upsets, constipation, coughs, colds and pneumonia, ear infections, meningitis, asthma, eczema and other allergies, and, probably also sudden infant death syndrome (cot death).
Breast-fed babies also have a lower risk of developing diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure and heart disease in later life.
Breast-fed babies may also be easier to wean onto solids as they are used to milk changing taste according to what their mother eats, whereas formula always tastes essentially the same. And studies show that breast-fed babies also tend to do better on behaviour tests throughout life.
Many women planning to breast-feed are delighted to hear that weight loss tends to occur more quickly and easily when breast-feeding. Other benefits to mothers include a reduced risk of significant bleeding after birth, decreased risk of breast and ovarian cancers, and decreased osteoporosis.
And, if a baby nurses frequently, without restriction or formula supplementation, breastfeeding can help to naturally space pregnancies. Early cessation of breastfeeding has also been associated with the onset of post-natal depression.
Breast-feeding is free, and requires no special equipment (unless a woman gives her baby expressed breast milk), which represents a significant saving. Breast feeding is also more hygienic than bottle feeding, as bottles and teats attract germs, which may persist despite modern sterilisation methods.
Breast-feeding also reduces the environmental waste attributed to formula containers etc. This, combined with the waste products created by formula and bottle production, mean that breast-feeding is much more environmentally friendly.
And, lastly, higher breast-feeding rates mean less childhood illness, and so less work days lost to parents staying at home to care for sick children.
In the words of UNICEF: ”Formula is not an acceptable substitute for breastmilk because formula is just a food, whereas breast milk is a complex living nutritional fluid containing anti-bodies, enzymes, long chain fatty acids and hormones, many of which simply cannot be included in formula.”