Normalising breastfeeding in Irish society
Following yesterday’s post about the ESRI findings about how low a percentage of Irish women breastfeed compared to non-Irish born women, I’ve been thinking a lot about breastfeeding attitudes in our society. Right now, formula feeding is seen as the standard and breastfeeding is the exception in Ireland. Once you get past the newborn stage, this is definitely the case. The HSE have been campaigning to increase breastfeeding numbers, and it seems that at least among the middle class, they are having some small success.
But it takes time to change attitudes. In a lot of ways, it is like the drink-driving campaigns. They started with “Just two will do” in the eighties, until we got to where we are today with the almost zero tolerance approach to drinking and driving.
But it is going to take more than a few HSE campaigns to normalise breastfeeding in Irish society. Bottle-feeding is everywhere. And when you see breastfeeding portrayed, more often than not it’s on one of those chat shows or C4 documentaries where they are interviewing someone who’s feeding their teenager (exaggeration, but you get my point).
When I was nursing Little Man last Christmas, my niece was there. She’s 13 years old and she had never seen a baby being breastfed before. And her younger sister is 8, and every dolly she has ever owned comes with its own bottle. (Except Barbie!) When you think about it, this teaches kids that to feed a baby you use a bottle. And yet when I read last year about the breastfeeding dolly that was released, I thought it was weird. It took a while before I came around to the idea that it might actually be healthy to teach little girls that breastfeeding is normal! I wonder how long it will be before scenes like the one featured in this photo are normal because kids see it every day!
I remember at my breastfeeding group, one of the mothers there, who is Italian, was considering giving her baby a bottle of formula at night. I was telling her that I did the same with DS. So she asked me did I go to the doctor for a prescription or to the PHN? She couldn’t believe it when I told her that I could just walk into the supermarket and choose whichever formula I pleased without seeking any medical advice. Not that I’m advocating prescriptions for formula!! I think anyone who chooses to should be allowed to give their babies formula.
But I also think that in some ways, we do people a disservice by stepping on eggshells when it comes to the language we use. We always hear that “Breast is best” and “Breastfeeding results in greater immunity to childhood illnesses, especially respitory problems.” Why not rephrase the whole argument to say that formula feeding increases a child’s chances of developing asthma? In some ways, trying to step politely around the whole issue is patronising to women. And it leads to a lot of misconceptions. We never hold back from telling mothers that fatty foods are bad for their kids.
Many people I spoke to last year seemed to think that formula is an exact equivalent to breastmilk. A few people told me that nowadays formula is full of antibodies, just like breastmilk. And I didn’t correct them even though it’s untrue because I didn’t want to offend them in case they had chosen to formula feed. So I’m as guilty of side-stepping the issue as anyone else. And it’s true that knowing that formula wasn’t a perfect equivalent to breastmilk, I still chose to give it to Little Man once a day from six weeks, and in increasing amounts from six months until he was weaned at seven months.
So what’s the solution? I think one place to start is in the media. If you need to show a newborn being fed on tv, show that baby being breastfed. And then DON’T comment on it. I’ve seen three examples of breastfeeding on tv lately. The first was in Friends. Rachel had just had Emma and she was attempting to breastfeed. Cue comic scene about Joey’s discomfort with it. The second was in Desperate Housewives. Lynette was feeding her baby and her friend was horrified by it. (The last time Desperate Housewives featured breastfeeding it also involved Lynette – but this time she gave chocolate milk to a five year old who was being breastfed to wean him!) And then the third incident of breastfeeding I saw was in Raising Hope. The nutty grandmother took her top off and tried nursing the baby.
Perhaps it’s because I am looking out for examples of breastfeeding in tv drama, but I can’t think of similar examples that feature bottles.
And the next place I’d work on is making public areas more breastfeeding friendly. A lot of mothers, myself included, find themselves thinking in the early days that they would have a lot more freedom if they were bottle-feeding because they could comfortably do it in public. We need more places like IKEA, which has a lovely private corner of its restaurant that’s perfect for feeding. Or Dundrum Town Centre which has a very nice feeding room, complete with comfy armchairs. Sticking a hardback chair into a baby changing room is not catering for nursing mothers. Or bottle-feeding mothers with distractable babies!