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'I feed my baby in cafés, airplanes & churches... it can be difficult, but it's so worth it'

Sadly, just stating the scientific and biological facts on breastfeeding is often misinterpreted to be a judgement on other women’s choices, writes broadcaster Wendy Grace.

I SAT IN front of a woman I had never met, unable to stop myself from crying. My nipples were cracked and bleeding, every feed was agony and I was exhausted. But just one session with this lactation consultant and I was able to continue breastfeeding which has been the best part of being a mum.

Sadly, so many women I have talked to shared my experience of wanting to breastfeed but out of desperation and lack of support felt like giving up. 

This initial struggle was so unnecessary.

Breastfeeding should never be painful. Why was I not given the proper advice and guidance in the hospital?

The irrefutable evidence is that breastfeeding is the most nutritionally complete, biologically natural way to feed a baby.

It gives your baby the best foundation in life and is often described as the best gift a mother can give her baby. Yet Ireland, along with the US and France, have one of the worst breastfeeding rates in the world.

And Ireland has the overall worst rate among higher income countries.

It’s no surprise then that our rates of diabetes and childhood obesity are skyrocketing – both of which breastfeeding decreases the risk of significantly. 

Sadly, just stating the scientific and biological facts on breastfeeding is often misinterpreted to be a judgement on other women’s choices.

The judgement should only be on our government who has failed to prioritise the importance of breastfeeding over profiteering formula companies who spend hundreds of millions targeting exhausted and vulnerable mums, disempowering women who want to breastfeed. 

The focus should always be on supporting those who want to breastfeed, rather than persuading those who have chosen not to. 

Before the birth

Throughout all the antenatal classes I attended, hospital visits, and even check ups there was no point at which anyone talked about the benefits of breastfeeding. When it was briefly mentioned it was presented as if it was one of two equal choices: this false idea is a disservice to the mother and her baby.

We know so much more now than our mothers did about the benefits of breastfeeding that it is our responsibility to arm mums with the information they need on how to feed their babies. 

Even the billion-dollar formula industry has to admit breastfeeding is what is best for baby.

Breast milk is tailor-made for your baby, with immunological and protective factors which change every feed adapting to the specific needs of your baby. It is always ready at the right temperature to be given any time any place, and it’s free.

Formula is processed cows milk made “suitable” for babies. Breastfed babies are less likely to develop chest infections, ear infections, urinary infections, SIDS… the list goes on, whereas formula provides no specific protection against illness. 

Breastfeeding reduces infant mortality significantly, it means your baby will be less likely to develop certain cancers or respiratory diseases, and mum’s risk of breast and ovarian cancer decreases too. 

In countries like Norway and Sweden where nearly 100% of mums breastfeed, it’s not because they have different breasts. They managed to turn their once low rates around by listening to women, providing the right practical supports, such as parental leave and properly trained healthcare professionals that assist before and after the baby is born.

Increasing breastfeeding rates is a UN sustainable development goal. UNICEF and the WHO all stress the importance of this being a public health priority, yet our government still doesn’t seem to get it. 

We continue to spend millions on doling out free formula and bottles, time is spent mixing formula, heating it and sterilising bottles, but when it comes to breastfeeding support the time and money invested comparatively is pathetic. 

The birth

When my baby was born the first thing he did was crawl up my belly and latch on, the natural instinct was truly amazing. Those first few feeds are akin to one of the most powerful immune boosters your baby will ever have.

Yet 44% of babies born in Irish hospitals start their life on formula. With the irrefutable health benefits to mum and baby it would seem obvious that mums who want to breastfeed are automatically given the support of a lactation consultant while in hospital.

There have been so many moments when I have been so thankful that I have continued to breastfeed, lying beside my baby in hospital after he had to have a small operation knowing that this was the only thing that would comfort and ease his pain. I felt empowered by the reality that in every feed my milk was alive and changing, adapting and creating antibodies and enzymes specifically tailored to his needs at that moment that would help him get well again.

It got us through flights, injections, and tears, and created the most beautiful bond with my baby strengthened by oxytocin that is released every time a baby feeds.

I have fed my baby in coffee shops, airplanes, park benches, and churches. Has there been difficult days? Of course. But has it been worth it? Totally.

I never thought I would be writing a piece talking about continuing to feed my 19-month-old.

At first I told myself I just needed to get through the first six weeks, and I only got that far thanks to my ‘breast angel’ lactation consultant.

After that, it’s thanks to the constant support of breastfeeding mums – at coffee mornings and online – who just want to help you at any time of the night or day.

There was always a volunteer counsellor happy to chat on the phone, or endless supportive non-judgmental advice at weekly Cuidiú coffee mornings. There is no vested interests, or clever marketing, profiteering or power grabbing, just women who have experienced the benefits and joys of breastfeeding and want to ensure all mums who want to do the same are able to.

The good news is that rates are gradually increasing. Breastfeeding is not a one-woman job – support is needed from government policy, hospitals, workplaces, and communities. When policies are put in place they work. The Rotunda hospital, for example, has an initiation rate 20% higher than other hospitals. I hope that all mums-to-be can make a fully informed choice about how they will feed their baby, and be given all the necessary tools to help her begin and succeed in breastfeeding. 

Here are some resources that might help mums who want to breastfeed:

Wendy Grace is a broadcaster with Spirit FM. 


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