Sabina Higgins opening address to the Baby Feeding Law Group Ireland’s webinar ‘Feeding the Future: Shared responsibility’
Monday, 4th October 2021
I am delighted to have this opportunity to be with you all this afternoon.
National Breastfeeding Week has become a most important date on Ireland’s calendar, a time when we reflect on the importance of breastfeeding for the health of our citizens, of the many benefits of breastfeeding and on the figures around uptake of breastfeeding which here in Ireland remain worryingly low.
Even though 63.8 per cent of women here introduce breastfeeding at their baby’s first feed, just 37 per cent of mothers are still breastfeeding at the time they leave the hospital.
These stark figures show we are a society which has failed to encourage, support and normalise breastfeeding despite clear and constantly growing evidence that this is the very best thing a mother can do for the health and development of her cherished child.
‘Inconvenience’ has been cited as one of the greatest deterrents to mothers considering the question of breastfeeding. It is difficult to believe, however that so many devoted parents who would do anything and everything for their child, would reject a method of feeding that has been recommended by experts around the world as the best source of nutrition and hydration for babies, on the grounds that it is less convenient for them than bottle feeding.
I Firmly believe, as I know do so many of you here today, that if we delve behind the word ‘inconvenient’ we will find other words such as lack of information , lack of knowledge, ‘embarrassment’, ‘disapproval’, ‘lack of facilities’, ‘lack of support’.
Many women still feel unable to breastfeed in restaurants, shopping centres, parks and cafés; and women are forced to go into draughty hallways, public toilets and cramped cubicles in order to breastfeed their babies as we are not a society which prioritises the health and welfare of its youngest citizens.
Many new mothers have few or no role models amongst their peers to encourage them to breastfeed, and they often encounter disapproval and discouragement from older members in their families and communities, as we are not a society which empowers women to make informed choices around the best way to feed and nurture their babies.
A society where breastfeeding mothers who need or wish to return to the workplace feel unable to continue to breastfeed their child, despite legislation enabling them to do so, is not a society which offers women real choice in how
they wish to live their lives and care for their children.
Yet these situations are so often the reality behind that simple word ‘inconvenient’.
Another reality of course, is the sustained marketing campaign aimed at promoting formula feeding. We see it constantly even on our
television screens while we don’t see the HSE or our Public Broadcasting promoting breastfeeding or showing breastfeeding Mother’s and Babies on our screen.
At this point may I say how delighted I am that our co-hosts today, along with the National Women’s Council of Ireland, are Baby Feeding Law Group Ireland who, earlier this year, launched a social media campaign that explored the issues of protecting infant feeding from industry influence.
It is critical that we create an environment where healthy development of our children is not endangered by the economic goals of large international industries, or by cynical and aggressive advertising and promotions aimed at new mothers and peddling nutritionally inaccurate information.
The normalisation of formula-feeding has had far reaching and, in poorer countries across the world, disastrous consequences including increases in mortality, malnutrition and diarrhea in very young infants. As concerned global citizens we must fight to ensure that breastfeeding is once more established and understood, not only as a health option for our children, but as the most effective way of preventing child mortality across the world.
If we are to achieve this is the short-term and in the future we must take action.
But what I sometimes think is that if all these great organisations who are dedicated to making breastfeeding the norm, could come together to have a conference with the aim of deciding on a national plan of campaign, it could be very successful. Organisations like the HSE, the Midwives, La Leche League, Cuidiu, Friends of Breastfeeding, Bainne Beatha, Pavee Point Mothers, Breastfest and of course, the Baby-Feeding Law Group.
We really have to set our sights at breastfeeding numbers being in the 80 and 90 per cent range, like in Sweden and other Scandinavian countries. This would be a many-pronged programme of action.
Bainne Beatha in its survey found that mothers in hospital could not get the help they needed to get breastfeeding established as there were not enough midwives and also that they were too busy and overworked to give sufficient time and attention to help the mothers.
Preparation for breast-feeding should begin from the first visit by a pregnant woman to her G.P.. She/He, the doctor, the obstetrician, the midwife, the nurse, must have the knowledge and training to help with breastfeeding. They should have the duty of encouraging mothers to breastfeed by informing them of the benefit to the baby and themselves.
The antenatal preparations for birth should help the mother in preparing the breasts for feeding, and give advice on latching-on, and what to expect and how to deal with any problem that might arise along the journey. Things like knowing if there is a blocked milk duct that it can be treated by massaging the duct from the source - from under the armpit to the nipple to smooth away the blockage and restore the flow,
The task of normalising breast-feeding is big and very important. Many people, small children, bigger children, adolescents and adults have not had the experience of seeing babies being breastfed. For tens of thousands of years, through all the generations of our ancestors, human beings survived and thrived by being breastfed.
My mother and mostly all the mothers of the country at that time breastfed. We were seven children and we, and all the children at school were 2 or 2 1/2 years apart, so it seems babies were breastfed exclusively for a year and that acted as a contraceptive for spacing the family.
Then during the 40’s all that was tragically lost. People and medical people were persuaded by the advertising lie that formula bottle feed was best. I remember the Cow and Gate ads!
30 years later when I came to breastfeed my children, almost all babies were bottle-fed. Antenatal personnel never mentioned breastfeeding and doctors and nurses in the hospital knew nothing about breastfeeding and could give no help to the few mothers wanting to breastfeed. Fortunately, we were able to get information from a book on breastfeeding and a member of La Leche League.
Things have improved but there is much room for improvement. There must be enough midwives in the health service for them to have a relationship with the expectant mother right through her journey, and be available to her right through birth and latching-on. She must be available until breastfeeding is successfully established, both in the hospital and afterwards at home.
Now, thanks to the great scientific research done by the United Nations World Health Organisation, it has been proven beyond any doubt that human breastmilk is the very best start in life that can be given to a baby, and that nothing else compares with it. It provides baby with all the nutrients it needs for healthy growth, at the right pace and at the right weight, and protects it from becoming obese later in life. Its recommendation is that a baby is fed exclusively on breast milk for the first six months. It can then go straight on to solids and breast milk or other milk.
This has brought change for the better.
Midwives are now back, and nurses are trained as midwives that can help mothers with breastfeeding. There is so much work to be done to make breastfeeding a normalised experience in society in general.
As I have said, there are so few role models that many people have never seen a baby being breastfed. Even babies who have been breastfed may not remember and for them, and everyone, it is necessary that they are helped to be familiar with this experience. This could be provided at all stages of education, right from their first years in school and on through each stage.
There can be age-appropriate story books and health educational books, and videos available at all stages of the curriculum.
I think that the Belfast big community festival ‘Breastfest’ is such a great experience for the whole community. Maybe it could be replicated down here!
Seeing the joy of mothers gathered together for latching-on mornings, and their pleasure in exchanging stories and then their wish to help other mothers with breastfeeding is such a reason for optimism.
I have no doubt but that breastfeeding mothers in a school would be happy to come to a schoolroom for a health education class to allow children to see a baby being breastfed.
Seeing a baby being breastfed would seem to be a lovely natural and even essential experience for a person growing up conscious of the wonder of human life.
I think there are some great people in the health service who are supportive of breastfeeding and that it needs a coming together of all organisations to maybe go in deputation to the Minister for Health, the Department of Health and the HSE, and to lobby at Leinster House, in the Dail and in the Seanad, and indeed the Teachers’ Unions.
It will be necessary for the Government in its budget to provide the necessary resources to ensure that there are enough midwives in the hospital, and in the community, with the motivation and the objective of Bringing Back Breastfeeding!
May I conclude, therefore, by thanking all those who are participating in today’s webinar. Your commitment to the empowerment of women to make informed decisions around how they wish to feed their children is so welcome and commendable.
I hope it will be a most productive and enjoyable webinar and that there will continue to be great success with this important work.
Happy Breastfeeding Week