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 Rollercoaster.ie and subsequently over email and then via Facebook. I still find support from the Extended Breastfeeding in Ireland Facebook group.
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.
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.
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.