By Mark Allen
Midwifery students at the University of Limerick kicked off Breastfeeding Awareness week with a coffee morning in the Health Science building on Monday.
The aim of the coffee morning was for mothers to share experiences with one another about breastfeeding and to promote public breastfeeding as a social norm.
With only 56 percent of Irish women breastfeeding, compared to the EU average of 90 percent, Ireland has the lowest rate in Europe.
Breastfeeding Awareness week has become a regular fixture on the Irish medical calendar.
Fourth year midwifery student, Kelly Ni Laoire, who helped organise the coffee morning believes the event really helped normalise what is a healthy and basic human right.
“Mothers need support to help them break that stigma. The over-sexualisation of breasts, especially in Ireland, has become a major problem,” she said.
“It was so nice to be in a room where breastfeeding was so accepted, all the mothers that were really nervous about it, it really settled them to be in a safe environment. Everywhere should be a safe environment”.
Ms Ni Laoire also explained the benefits for both mother and child when breastfeeding, and thought it was refreshing to see fathers get involved this year.
“Breastfeeding reduces the risk of infections, UTI’s and also aides brain development, not only this but mothers have a reduced chance of contracting breast and cervical cancer,” she said.
“There was also a father there, he was minding all the children and always helping out. I think it’s really important that dads are involved in the breastfeeding process”.
When asked about the historical factors contributing to such a low breastfeeding rate in Ireland, Ms Ni Laoire explained that social class plays a major role in the unpopularity of breastfeeding.
“One woman told me that she didn’t breastfeed because her mother said only poor people breastfeed, there was a misconception that because formula milk was expensive, it was superior to breastfeeding,” she said.
“We also interviewed some international students, who thought having an awareness week in the first place was quite strange; they said that bottle feeding was not the norm”.
Roisin, 24, who is a midwife in the University Hospital Limerick, echoed the sentiments of Ms Ni Laoire and took part in the Breastfeeding Awareness week in 2015, her year group winning an award in the process.
She believes the cultural ignorance towards breastfeeding began due to a surplus amount of cows’ milk that was marketed as formula milk many years ago.
“Surplus cows’ milk was converted into infant formula and it was portrayed that only higher class people could afford it, so there was social status attached to it and everyone thought that it was better for your baby to have formula milk,” she said.
Roisin believes education still needs improvement.
“I knew little about breastfeeding before entering college and it really was a form of taboo, we need to improve education and have the benefits of breastfeeding taught from secondary level and earlier,” she said.
Breastfeeding Awareness week runs from the 1st until the 7th of October with many events taking place nationwide.
Visit www.breastfeeding.ie for more information.