Speech by Sabina Higgins opening the “Innovations for Successful Breastfeeding” Conference
School of Nursing and Midwifery, Trinity College, Dublin, Tuesday 4th October, 2022
Good morning everyone, Happy Breastfeeding Week. I am delighted to be here with you as you open the conference “Innovations for Successful Breastfeeding”.
It is so welcome that this conference is going to continue for 2 days and it promises to be very worthwhile and very exciting as it has such a wonderful line-up of speakers and contributors and participants who are all so committed and experienced in furthering the common objective of having a big breakthrough in the number of mothers successfully breastfeeding in our hospitals and in our community.
Food security is one of the most vital and urgent concerns on the planet and is the main issue at this session at the United Nations. It is emphasised there that the importance of breastfeeding is not just individual, it is societal, cultural, international and planetary. Food Security is one of the Sustainable Development Goals and one of the greatest benefits and achievements would be to have all babies on the planet breastfed by well-nourished mothers. It is to the World Health Organisation of the UN that we owe our gratitude for their scientific research which has proven, and continues to add to the evidence that there is no greater gift to a baby for its nourishment, health, and development than to be breastfed exclusively for the first 6 months of its life, and then while introducing solids when weaning, that it is recommended to continue with some breastfeeding for the rest of the year or for as long as a mother chooses. Apart from passing on the mother’s immunity and being best for health, nutrition, and development, it has so many other important benefits such as lowering breast cancer risks for the mother and helping to prevent childhood obesity.
It is the baby’s birth right that except, for maybe in some exceptional conditions It should be fed on human milk. It is so fundamental to our being. It took millions probably billions of years of intuition, instinct and intelligence for nature to evolve a species that reached a stage of mammal and then of human beings that could carry and nourish their young inside their bodies and then continue to feed it with human milk once it was given birth.
How tragic that that miracle of creation, that birth right of a baby to its mother’s milk, should have been perversely thrown away - as it says in some poem- as if it were a careless trifle.
For the thousands of years that people have lived in Ireland and the rest of the world, generation after generation breastfed their children, then sometime in the late 1940’s the culture was prompted to change to bottle feeding- perhaps it was the ads run by Cow and Gate persuaded people that formula was best. Anyway by 1970 almost all babies were bottle-fed –except for the very few exceptions. Breastfeeding was not mentioned by any medical personnel in the health service during the women’s pregnancy – ante or postnatal and it seems the midwife had disappeared.
There is a cultural change back to breastfeeding through the great courage, advocacy and commitment of many enlighted and concerned people in society and in the health service.
Ireland has still the lowest rate of breastfeeding in Europe and Globally. We have a long way to go yet. Thankfully now we have again Midwifery as a dedicated branch of Nursing. The advocacy and campaigning by the Midwives and committed people in the HSE and all the great voluntary advocates for Breastfeeding, La Leche League, Cuidiú, Friends of Breastfeeding, Bainne Beatha, Association of Lactation Consultants of Ireland, Baby Feeding Law Group, Association for Improvements in the Maternity Services, Community Midwives Association, has greatly advanced the recognition of the importance of Breastfeeding. Particularly valuable was the contribution of the policy document by the HSE. The HSE Health Service Breastfeeding Plan 2016-2021. This is a great start and will make a big difference when it is implemented in full.
Nonetheless we have not got anywhere near having structures in place that would bring about the urgent need to put in place the supports that would improve our rate of Breastfeeding by multiples of what they are now. We need urgent action and policies in place that will have the objective of bringing our Breastfeeding rates up to 80% or 90%, as in Britain and some European countries particularly the Scandinavian countries where it is in the 90%s. At say 40% at present of roughly 60,000 babies born in a year 24,000 are Breastfeeding – 36,000 are not. There needs to be encouragement and support.
We need all the committed parties involved with the HSE and the Midwives, all the support and advocacy groups together to lobby the government to convince them of the wisdom and foresight it would be to provide the funding for this – reminding them of the enormous benefits to society as a whole and the reduction in the future financing of the Health Services.
We need a whole change in our cultural attitude if we are to bring about the desired progress in our breastfeeding rates. We need a society that is culturally sensitive to and comfortable with and accepting and welcoming of breastfeeding. It could be part of our education system and it could be part of our life skills curriculum particularly at 2nd level. In our public places and spaces Breastfeeding should be facilitated and women feel free and welcome to feed their children in public.
HSE should have programmes and regular ads on our television rather than the ads we see daily for formula feed by largely unaccountable corporations with vast resources of finance. During a Breastfeeding week discussion on the supports that would help new mothers, the health expert had to be prompted by the interviewer to include help with Breastfeeding in the supports needed. There may still be a reluctance or inhibition in speaking of breastfeeding in public by some.
I think that our objective can really only be achieved by recognising and prioritising the necessity of the key presence and expertise of the skilled midwife – who has qualified as nurse, midwife and lactation expert. I notice that there are of late skilled midwife lactation consultants who are qualified to provide courses in Breastfeeding Skills for medical people in the Health Service who have not had this training. That is such a welcome development. I think there must be priority given in the Maternity Services to have as many fulltime multiskilled Midwives as are needed, so that they can give the continuity of care that the expectant mother needs right through her pregnancy on the preparation for childbirth and preparation for her breastfeeding journey – preparing the nipples so they are resilient, about facilitating baby latching on soon after birth, informing them to be prepared for the growth spurts at 3 weeks, 6 weeks & 10 weeks so that when the baby wants to feed all day they will know that it is
just doing what is necessary to increase the amount of milk this now requires.
To watch out for the problem of a blocked milk duct – or sometimes referred to as mastitis and how it might be treated by massaging the milk duct towards the nipple as the baby is sucking – I always found massaging from under the armpit would free up the flow. Some mothers find pressing a cold cabbage leaf will do the work and free the flow. There must be continuity of care by the midwives presence in the hospital and at home for as long as it takes– to ensure the mother has successfully managed the latching on and establishment of the breastfeeding.
I think that every medical person, GP, obstetrician, midwife in the health care maternity service, the mother meets should have trained in their undergraduate and in their qualifing studies to be informed on all aspects of Breastfeeding. Starting with her first visit – probably to her GP, the woman should have the benefits of Breastfeeding discussed with her and be encouraged, and then the midwife and the prenatal classes will continue the support.
This is such an important area of your nurturing care profession that you are privileged to be part of. We are immensely grateful to you and we wish you great fullfillment in your vocation, and a great and enjoyable conference where you will be encouraged and find solidarity in your work of ensuring the country can rejoice with happy mothers and babies.
Happy Breastfeeding Week again . It gives me great pleasure to open the conference “Innovations for Successful Breastfeeding.”