Media Library


Remarks by Sabina Higgins at Pavee Point’s Event to mark National Breastfeeding Week

Friday, 1st October, 2021

Happy Breastfeeding week!

I am very happy to join with you all at Pavee Point to celebrate breastfeeding week and in particular to celebrate the fact there is a growing knowledge of the importance of breastfeeding.

I am delighted to be with you here for the launch of Pavee Women’s Video and information booklet, for traveller women wishing to breastfeed their babies.

I would like to commence by acknowledging the significant work that has been done by Pavee Point and Primary Health Care Project across the county to support and encourage breastfeeding amongst Travelling women. I would also like to welcome the HSE partners who are present today, and who by their presence make a supportive statement of their commitment to working with Travellers to increase breastfeeding rates in the travelling community.

I am deeply aware and indeed concerned that, in a modern Ireland where the benefits of breastfeeding have now been proven beyond argument, just three per cent of traveller women feel encouraged, enabled or empowered to breastfeed their babies.  This stands in stark contrast to European Roma communities, where breastfeeding is the cultural norm, indeed sometimes identified amongst Roma mothers as an integral part of their cultural identity.

Breast milk is the perfect food for a baby, there is nothing else that compares with it. It gives the baby the very best start in life and the benefit will go on right through its life and the mother’s life.

It contains all the nutrients the baby needs to ensure that it will be healthy and thrive, grow at the appropriate pace and be the right weight, and the breastfed baby is protected from becoming obese later in life.  Through the breast milk the mother passes on all her immunities to protect the baby’s health. 

We are so indebted to the United Nations, the World Health Organisation and UNICEF for all the scientific research they have done so that we now know so much of what is the very best start we can give to our baby.  They have found that breastfeeding the baby exclusively – with nothing added – for the first six months of its life brings lifelong health benefits and the baby can then go on to complementary solids and continue to be breastfed or have ordinary milk.  They recommend that this continue for a year or longer if the mother wishes.

When I was young my mother knew so many Traveller women who visited her when they would come to our area in North Galway, South Mayo.  They all breastfed their babies as did my mother and all the women of the country area and probably of the cities too.  We were 7 children and we were 2 years or 2½ years apart, as was the case with all the children at school, so it seems women breastfed for a year before weaning and that acted as a contraceptive.   That was how it was up until the mid 40’s, and then shamefully all that was lost as people themselves and medical people gave way to the pressure of the lie of the advertising that said formula was the best.  That was such a tragedy.

By the time of the 1970’s, around 30 years later, when I came to breastfeed my children almost all babies were bottle-fed.  Midwives had disappeared and doctors and the nurses in the hospital knew nothing about breastfeeding and could give no help to the few women who were breastfeeding. Fortunately we were able to get help by way of information from a book on Breastfeeding and some members of La Leche League .

We, in Ireland, had and still have, the lowest breastfeeding percentage in Europe, at I think 46% in general, and even lower at about 3% among traveller women.  Thankfully now because of the work of the World Health Organisation this percentage is getting better all the time.   Midwives are back and the HSE has made commitments and many of the hospitals, but regretfully not all, are breastfeeding-friendly. 

There is the wonderful work being done by support organisations such as Pavee Mothers at Pavee Point, La Leche League, Cuidiu, Friends of Breastfeeding and Bainne Beatha, who all help new breastfeeding mothers by giving information, and by meeting up to help each other, and have latching on morning and have a chat. Then there is the wonderful Breast Feeding Law Group who are highlighting the unethical marketing of formula by the babyfeed manufacturing corporations, and campaigning to get compliance with the WHO Code.

All women from the Travelling and Settled Communities have to continue to spread the information on the vital importance of breastfeeding and show support for each other and solidarity.

When we have ’Latching-0n Day’ at Áras an Uachtaráin for breastfeeding week at the beginning of October, hundreds of mothers come, all proudly feed their babies, and resolve to share this great joy and practice of breastfeeding by campaigning for the normalacy of breastfeeding, at their homes, at their places of work, at the shops, at restaurants and any other place they need to be to get on with their lives, with the support of their families and their communities.

All expectant mothers are in touch with the medical service of the Health Service and this is where the preparation for birth and breastfeeding must be started.  The doctor, the obstetrician, the midwife have a duty to inform women of the benefits of breastfeeding, and pre-natal classes should give the information on the preparation of the breasts for breastfeeding and all that mothers need to expect and know to make life easy, and also how they can deal with any difficulties that might arise.  For instance if there is a blocked duct - massaging the milk duct all the way from its source in the armpit to the nipple will re-establish the flow.

In a survey by the breastfeeding group Bainne Beatha they found that many mothers could not get the help in hospital with breastfeeding they needed as there were not enough midwives and they could not give them enough time or help them establish the latching on successfully. If we are to succeed this must change. We must have enough midwives in the Health Service to ensure good practice. I think it is absolutely necessary that the midwife is fully available to the mother and latching on takes place as soon as is possible after the baby is born and that she is available to the mother in hospital and later at home to deal with any help that may be needed until breastfeeding is comfortably established. Knowledge about breastfeeding should of course be part of a doctors training.

Regretfully there are some rare times where for medical reasons breastfeeding is not suitable.  There are times when a mother has some rare condition such as ‘galactosemia’ which will be identified when the baby is screened after being born, then breastfeeding will not be suitable and  the baby must be fed alternatives to breast milk, or cow’s milk  alternatives such as soya milk.

As the incidence of ‘galactosemia’ is high it must be obligatory that the result of the screening by blood test is made available to the mother as soon as possible so that, unless the result indicates there is a problem, she can breastfeed with confidence without delay.  This is an area for research.

It cannot be denied that lack of appropriate and accessible information about breastfeeding is a key reason for the unacceptably low percentage of breastfeeding rates amongst traveller women.

The vast majority of traveller women receive their health information from traveller groups, and the establishment of Pavee Mothers, a website for Traveller women by Traveller Women has built a critical bridge between the travelling community and the health services, so necessary to a positive pregnancy and childbirth experience.

Lack of privacy, lack of space, lack of encouragement from peers and fear of offending others can also make breastfeeding very difficult for new mothers.

It is said that it takes a whole community to rear a child and everyone should become aware that as it’s the mother’s human right and the baby’s birthright that baby be fed with human milk, and that they should be supported in this by everyone.  Of course, it is also the greatest bonding in the family but it is also the easiest, all trouble free and cost free, no bottles to be sterilised, no formula to be made up or getting up in the middle of the night for the father either, to heat a bottle and knowing you are giving your cherished baby the very best start in life.

May I at this point thank and commend all those involved in the creation and development of Pavee Mothers.  In the three years since your establishment you have, I know, been a source of considerable assistance and support to many traveller women seeking access to maternity services within our health system.  Indeed, you have provided a vital link between the travelling community and those badly needed services.

Today we celebrate an important milestone in your work as you gather to launch four vidoes of Traveller women talking directly about their experience of breastfeeding, along with a booklet which provides information on breastfeeding to Traveller women. These are all most vital developments, which I am confident will lead to many more traveller women being enabled to make informed decisions around breastfeeding their babies.

May I thank and congratulate Pavee Mothers on this uplifting occasion, and wish you every success as you continue your generous and inspiring work.

I send my best wishes to all pregnant women and new mothers. Remember  all of our ancestors were breastfed. Let us bring back breastfeeding.