Ireland: the land that forgot breastfeeding

TIME magazine recently cashed in on a current, strained Western attitude to breastfeeding. They published a beautiful, quirky breastfeeding photograph on their cover and gave it what I would call a contentious caption. It brought enormous mainstream media attention to breastfeeding. Suddenly everyone was talking about breastfeeding: not just parents. This is good.

I’m at the stage where I can nurse my 18-month-old son with hardly a prior thought, but it wasn’t like this when my daughter was a baby and toddler. For one thing, she wanted to nurse much more than he does and for longer, anywhere, anytime without warning. She was just that kind of baby. On the other hand, when she was born four years ago I had hardly known anyone who breastfed and I didn’t know anything about it. I was learning from a strong online community, and they’re the reason I was able to continue to nurse my daughter until she was 2 and a half. They came from the parenting website and subsequently over email and then via Facebook. I still find support from the Extended Breastfeeding in Ireland Facebook group.

With my daughter in 2009. Photograph by Claire Wilson,

I desperately needed support and understanding from my ‘real world’ community too, though. It was a shocking experience to find that many Irish people didn’t really understand breastfeeding. I often felt a pressure to hide us, all through mine and my daughter’s nursing relationship, right from when she was a newborn to when we weaned. My family and friends got used to it, but I think it was a bit hard for them. Giving formula is a bit different to nursing, if you’re more familiar with it: babies are fed more on a schedule, whereas breastfeeding means a demand and supply relationship. Nursing also means much more than just food. It’s also for comfort, naps, and medicine. My daughter needed nursing or “boppy” as she called it as much for these things as for food and drink. So she was latched on to me a lot. I think people found that strange.

Feeling like I had to defend it all the time was unsettling. I got asked a lot about when I was going to wean, would I not give her a bottle. It started in earnest from when she was three months old. By then I knew how important it was to her. It was a revelation to learn from my online friends that I *could* keep nursing her through babyhood and into toddlerhood, that this was not only normal but good. I was learning about breastfeeding in a land that had largely forgotten how. In the early days, I didn’t know what I was doing, I tried to feed her on a schedule, my supply got messed up, I got blockages and mastitis and pain. Instead of the correct information and solid support to get us going, it seemed like nobody understood. The public health nurses and GP were sympathetic but wanted me to consider giving up. My family were at a loss to help. It felt like everyone thought I was putting unnecessary pressure on myself to breastfeed my tiny new baby, as though a bottle would do. Thanks to my internet support network, I found out about La Leche League, Cuidiú and a private lactation consultant and I finally got it right when my daughter was 5 weeks old.

Nowadays, my son has “boppy” mostly just for food. We nurse a lot less than me and my daughter did, and he feeds faster. He’s been like this since the day he was born. Efficient. I also nurse him a lot less “discretely” than I did my daughter – he won’t wait for me to cover up and he won’t tolerate any fabric tickling his face while he’s latched. More efficiency. He’s just that kind of baby. If any of my friends and family find it weird to sometimes see me sitting there a bit exposed, they don’t say so, and they’re respectful enough to look away for a few minutes. They are familiar enough with us nursing now that they don’t ask about stopping or weaning anymore either.

This helps a lot. It means I have acquired the confidence to meet my baby’s needs wherever, whenever. I never thought I’d squat on my hunkers outside Marks and Spencers on the busy Liffey Street in Dublin to breastfeed a baby. He was ten months old and starting to howl for some boppy. I panicked, trying to remember where the nursing room was. In an instant I recognised two things: nursing rooms can be horrible; and my son wouldn’t wait. Outside on the street, hundreds of people scuttered by. Only one cast us a passing glance. I nursed him for three minutes, one hand on my three-year old’s arm so she wouldn’t run off with the buggy.

The unwanted comments that knock breastfeeding confidence

I’m glad I have that kind of confidence now, but the pressure to stop breastfeeding or not do it at all still goes on for countless others in Ireland. I know how suggestions like “top up” “give up” “move on” corrode breastfeeding confidence. For me, that kind of environment, with these unwanted, unhelpful and discouraging comments, was like being in a constant swarm of mosquitoes, where the internet was my protective net to breastfeed my daughter confidently. It can be frustrating at best; debilitating at worst.

The media might not have exclusively created this environment where breastfeeding isn’t understood as normal by everyone. The reasons for why Ireland has a cultural amnesia about breastfeeding are the stuff of anthropological theses. But the media reinforces it now.

Every day on the radio, on TV, on the internet, in advertising, even in GP’s surgeries there is this sweet-talking, pervasive influence to “move on”. The World Health Organisation produced a wonderful Code to prevent this and protect those who want to breastfeed, but the Code is flouted every day by formula producers and distributors. TV and radio ads that idealise formula flout the Code. Baby clubs aimed at pregnant women to attract them to formula products flout the Code. I picked up a wad of leaflets for the Cow and Gate baby club at my local GP’s last month. A friend of mine joined a breastfeeding support website Mumslikeus which emails out unsolicited tips about stopping breastfeeding when your baby is six weeks old. It is run by Aptimel. The sugary facade of an underhand marketing practice is unnerving. And it is unethical.

With my son in 2012

Ireland is actually one of the friendliest western places to breastfeed: officially. We have rights (see Citizens Information). But they are being dogged by cultural attitudes that are reinforced by other interests. Irish health policy is supposed to fully reflect the Code, yet agricultural policy considers babies and young children a viable market for driving up profits for the dairy industry. This makes no sense. Does one governmental portfolio not talk to another? I’m interested to know how formula can be marketed appropriately and ethically without impacting on breastfeeding confidence the way it does now.


About Adrienne

Mother, yoga teacher aspirant, digital media enthusiast, archaeologist. Embracing countryside-living again after years of city lights. Still attempting, sporadically, to blog!
This entry was posted in Breastfeeding. Bookmark the permalink.

19 Responses to Ireland: the land that forgot breastfeeding

  1. Delighted to see you have started it Adrienne! Well done!! Sharing :0)

  2. Doreen Finn says:

    This is brilliant! As a long term breast feeder of two children, I’ve encountered exactly the same issues and attitudes as you have. And it drives me INSANE. Ireland is only so-so as regards support for BF, The support groups themselves are fantastic, but everyday attitudes are still full of the remnants of old Ireland, and that Catholic puritanism. Anyway, this is a fantastic piece; congratulations on writing it. I look forward to more!

    • Adrienne says:

      Thank you so much Doreen! I know now looking back how much I struggled when my daughter was a baby, culturally. I still don’t fully understand the why and the wherefore of the cultural resistance – thats another post I guess. Meanwhile however marketing practices are free to cement that resistance for the would-be supporters.

  3. Keep going Ado, it’s a great read!

  4. Siobhan says:

    Really enjoyed reading about you’re experiences. I relate to quite a bit! I fed my first til one and twins til 14months, no. 4 is due in Aug. I am only now learning about extended bf, can you believe it!
    I had as my aim to get them to a point where I could avoid artificial/formula milk. I regret that now, one of the twins had only just developed the emotional bond with bf just as I began to wean her. I don’t even know my motivation, except that there was no one round me feeding as long as I had and my moves to wean were welcomed by a lot of the people around me!! Yep, the same people who used the phrases, move on, top up, give up!!
    This time I want to give baby led weaning a go, so reading your experience was great.
    Feeding twins is a real modesty challenge 🙂 I am v comfortable with public feeding, but I did stress when taking the twins out. I tried to feed the sequentially as they got bigger, but occasionally two would need me at the same time, ok at home, bit more stressful in someone else’s home, so stressful in public that it never happened! So in that event decent feeding rooms would’ve been useful.
    It’s funny feeding in a culture like ours. Friends who had babies at the same time as each other were visiting. One baby bf the other not, one friend made comments about not knowing how my other friend could fill such a big baby and then asked could I imagine putting a baby that big to my boob! Well, I did reply! Considering the baby in question was only 4 months old, I could well imagine feeding a baby 10months older as I had fed two, often at the same time!
    Follow on milk and the ads just drive me mad. The clear breach of the code is appalling. One of my girls had a blood test recently, I noticed her haemoglobin levels were v good. So my exclusively bf child was not low in iron, wow, that’s not the impression given by those dispicable ads.
    I am delighted to have found somewhere I can get advice and support as I begin this journey again. I can honestly say I am looking forward to feeding my new baby, although as you put it, it’s so much more than feeding x

    • Adrienne says:

      Thanks so much for your comment Siobhán! I particularly admire anyone who can nurse twins in our culture. Double the support required, and amazing to get by if you *don’t* truly have that support! I can only imagine the “modesty challenge” – I’ve had to face down my own reservations with a bit of exposure with my son, I always fed my daughter “discretely” but I can’t really with my son, he’s impatient and he never got used to being concealed. Here I am now putting up a picture of us nursing on the web! I think the TIME pic encouraged me 😀

      This is the thing, there are actually *loads* of women who are experiencing the same thing I did, a resistance to breastfeeding in a culture where formula prevails. But we’re coming out of the woodwork! The TV ads are a flagrant breach of the Code. They are hurtful to breastfeeding and perpetuate the “top up — give up –move on” mantra.
      Check out the Extended Breastfeeding In Ireland Facebook group if you’re not there already! it’s fantastic. Congratulations on your pregnancy! I found baby led weaning with my daughter, well, it found us. My daughter didn’t need solids until well past her first birthday. It was always reassuring to know she was getting what she needed from “boppy”. My son then is total opposite, but we approached the introduction of solids the same way. He feeds himself now at mealtimes and eats all round him.

  5. Niamh says:

    Love this post! Will be checking in regularly! I second every word, and you put it so well. Love the title too! Niamh

  6. Kara says:

    Hi Adrienne, well done! What an excellent antidote to all the recent negative press on bras

    • Kara says:

      Whoops.. wasn’t quite finished there.. that’s typing one handed while breastfeeding. What I meant to say was negative press about breastfeeding. I will be keeping tuned in Adrienne. Any support is welcome as I breastfeed my 12 week old. I have to agree about the loss of memory about breastfeeding, we have lost a whole generation of Mums before us to formula and so we are at sea without their knowledge and support. I’m lucky that my mum actually had breastfed one of us and her encouragement has been invaluable. I’ve also found my local la leche league and other breastfeeding support groups great to meet other Mums who are going through the same things. Keep up the good work!! X

  7. Oh I love it so glad you have chosen to write about this. I totally relate to everying you described.! brilliant post looking forward to more. xx ps thanks Kara for sharing it. x

  8. Well done Adrienne! So well put together…it’s your calling! Looking forward to reading more XX

  9. Pingback: Breastfeeding in Ireland: the Difference Between “Promotion” and “Protection” | Kettle on the Range

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