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Only 2% of Traveller women breastfeed due to a range of additional barriers

This is in comparison to the national average of 56%.

Image: Shutterstock/ESB Professional

ONLY 2% OF Traveller women are found to breastfeed, says rights group Pavee Point. This is in comparison to the national average of 56%.

Today marks the start of National Breastfeeding Week, alongside the return of in-person breastfeeding groups after 18 months. Traveller women face a range of barriers to breastfeeding, including an absence of basic facilities such as electricity or water.

Pavee Mothers initiative was launched in 2018 and is the first national Traveller perinatal Health Initiative aimed at addressing Traveller maternal and infant health inequalities.

At the launch of the Pavee Mothers breastfeeding videos and information booklet today, healthcare workers and representatives from Pavee Point detailed the obstacles that prevent Traveller mothers from breastfeeding their children. Key among these is the lack of privacy and facilities that are available to Traveller women. 

Stephanie McDonald, Pavee Point breastfeeding development worker, highlighted that “overcrowding in Traveller households is seven times higher than the national average”. As a result, many Traveller women do not have access to an adequate amount of space or a private room to breastfeed.

Furthermore, a report by Pavee Point found that Traveller women who are interested in breastfeeding reported that they had received little support or encouragement from healthcare providers regarding starting breastfeeding.

Most women said that breastfeeding was either never discussed during antenatal appointments or that it was discussed only once. Where it was brought up, the information was quickly covered and no practical preparation support was offered.

The study also found that bottle feeding is more widely accepted, easier and can be done in shorter periods of time which is beneficial when a Traveller mother has many responsibilities alongside taking care of their baby.

The policy report found that there was a lack of recognition of the clinical barriers Traveller women face when starting to breastfeed particularly in relation to the Beutler test for galactosemia. Delays in receiving the Beutler test results that screen for galactosemia can impact if a Traveller woman takes up breastfeeding.

Galactosemia is a condition common in babies born to Traveller parents, and means that a baby can’t process breast milk or regular infant formula. In line with HSE policy, all Traveller newborns are routinely tested for galactosemia. Soon after birth, the Beutler test is done and babies are given soya based formula until the results come back.

Only one lab in the country processes Beutler test samples and the lab is closed over the weekend. There have been reports that test results can take between six hours to several days to come back. Such delays have a clear impact on initiating and establishing breastfeeding.

There are a number of primary healthcare workers at Pavee Point who help spread information regarding the benefits of breastfeeding. Mary Collins, a primary healthcare worker at Pavee Point said: “We’re just trying to spread the information out there to encourage them to breastfeed and how good it is.”

Collins went on to highlight the importance of receiving information tailored to the needs of Traveller women. She discussed the booklet developed by Pavee Mothers aimed at providing Traveller women with a resource to help communicate the benefits of breastfeeding.

Lynsey Kavanagh reiterated this point and emphasised the importance of ensuring leaflets provided to Traveller women about the topic are accessible and culturally friendly.

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Within the context of the Covid-19 pandemic healthcare providers have often relied on digital health resources. However, this can be exclusionary as over half of Traveller households do not have access to the internet.

The HSE is currently developing a national standardised education programme for breastfeeding in which everybody will receive a standardised education where “priorities are given for cultural sensitive breastfeeding education, which includes Traveller women”.

McDonald detailed that a key area needed to support Traveller women breastfeeding was “the development of collective spaces and dedicated breastfeeding groups for Traveller women to share advice and experiences”.

The policy report also set out a number of recommendations that could be implemented to increase breastfeeding among Traveller women. These included launching a comprehensive review and analysis on the galactosemia procedures and Beutler test. As well as including specific breastfeeding targets for Traveller women in the HSE breastfeeding action plan. Such targets include a 1% annual increase in the proportion of traveller women breastfeeding.

Traveller women are only named once in the current HSE breastfeeding action plan 2016-2021. The launch of the HSE’s new action plan on breastfeeding is due to be published at the end of this year.

National Breastfeeding Week runs from Friday 1 October to Thursday 7 October.

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