Breast is best, as the saying goes. Yet a majority of Irish mothers still choose
to feed their newborns with manufactured products that have to be prepared,
rather than with the milk their own body produces. Time and again, it has been
demonstrated that breast milk gives newborn babies the best possible start in
life. Why then, are Irish mothers continuing to reach for the bottle?
Despite all kinds of evidence that proves breastfeeding is better not only
for the child but also the mother, breastfeeding is still only pursued by a
minority of mothers, many of whom cease as soon as they return home from maternity
Promotion programmes designed to increase awareness of the benefits of breastfeeding
continue to fall on largely deaf ears. One of the difficulties is that mothers,
when they return home with their new baby, may get limited or no support to
continue with breastfeeding, if they encounter problems. The demands of the
'real' world take over.
Breastfeeding is much more common in developing countries than it is in parts
of Europe. Access to expensive formula milk is probably the deciding factor
for mothers in the developing world, but the fact remains that they gain vital
health benefits for themselves and their children that infants in Europe are
While the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that 35% of all children
worldwide are being breastfed at the age of four months, in Ireland, less than
that number are even receiving breast milk at birth. Only 12% of children in
Ireland will be breastfed at four months old, according to research conducted
by the Midland Health Board last year.
In the latest attempt to change mothers' minds about the importance of breastfeeding,
the government has appointed a National Breastfeeding co-ordinator. Formerly
the assistant director of midwifery at the National Maternity Hospital in Dublin's
Holles Street, Maureen Fallon took up her new position in June. She sees her
job as promoting a culture of breastfeeding in Ireland such as exists in Scandinavia
or the developing world.
"Obviously, breastfeeding is the normal, natural way for babies to be fed and
Irish women breastfed like everyone else", she explains. "I think breastfeeding
is a skill that we lost around two generations ago. There are complex reasons
for that, including the introduction of women to the workplace and a past association
of breastfeeding with poverty. But now the message needs to be that breastfeeding
is the best start any mother can give her child, and women need to be supported
The problems for Irish women often begin with receiving mixed signals about
whether to breastfeed or use formula milk, she said.
Up to 1998, the formula manufacturers had to comply with a code of conduct
in how they advertised their products - overseen by a Code Monitoring Committee
set up in 1982. The Committee was set up after Ireland voted in favour of the
WHO Code on the marketing of breast milk substitutes.
Now, enforcement responsibility for this area rests with the Food Safety Authority
of Ireland and it is underpinned by a Statutory Instrument (SI 243 of 1998).
Research by the lobby group Lionra On-line suggested that the International
Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes, which was adopted by Ireland over
20 years ago, was breached in 90% of Ireland's maternity units. The code stipulated
that marketing material for artificial milks should not be advertised in maternity
units or ante-natal classes.
"There is a monitoring system that functions from within the Food Safety Authority.
However, there have yet to be any prosecutions", says Maureen Fallon. "It
has to be admitted that there have been problems with formula manufacturers.
What is needed is a level of diligence among health professionals who deal with
However, the Advisory Committee on the Marketing of Infant Formula rejects
these claims and told irishhealth.com that the complaints under the original
code of marketing were not numerous and it added that since the enforcement
responsibility was given to the FSAI three years ago, 'there have been few complaints'.
Maureen Fallon believes that breastfeeding, while normal and natural, is a
learned skill and both mother and child need support from the wider family while
the mother learns how to place the child at her breast and the baby learns how
to suckle. Society also has a role to play in lowering the barriers it has erected
against the breastfeeding mother.
"I would like to see it written into law that a woman is allowed to breastfeed
her baby whenever and wherever she pleases, as long as it is discreet", says
Maureen Fallon. "If you go out to a hotel or restaurant and try to breastfeed
your child, you will often encounter a barrier. Someone might complain to the
manager or ask you to leave".
She praises La Leche League and Ciudiu for their peer promotion of breastfeeding
among new mothers and believes that health service professionals themselves
are good models for the pregnant women they deal with. A large majority of health
workers choose to breastfeed their children, thus endorsing breastfeeding in
the best way possible - by doing it themselves.
"As consumers, we are not used to a superior product being available for free",
Ms Fallon says. "The benefits of breastmilk don't just last while feeding or
during childhood, but throughout life. The miracle of nature is that breastmilk
'knows' what each child needs. Bottlefed babies are not just being fed artificial
and inferior food, but they are getting it in an abnormal way. Babies require
low volumes of food regularly".