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World Breastfeeding Week: Breastfeeding in Ireland

In celebration of World Breastfeeding Week, Lactation Matters will post every day this week, highlighting the stories of breastfeeding in different cultures and countries.

By Geraldine Cahill, IBCLC

The promotion of breastfeeding has been a key government health policy in Ireland since the 1990’s and yet the prevalence of breastfeeding is still incredibly low. The Growing up in Ireland Longitudinal Study has shown that Ireland has the lowest breastfeeding rate in Europe. Less then 50% of babies are still breastfeeding when they leave the hospital and less than 15% are still breastfeeding by six months. As happens in the rest of the Western world, levels of breastfeeding were likely to increase with educational levels. Some of the reasons given for not breastfeeding at all, were inconvenience and fatigue or simply having a preference for feeding formula (48%). Ireland has a long way to go to meet the goal of breastfeeding being the normal way to feed a baby.

How do I as an IBCLC in Private Practice view the state of Breastfeeding in Ireland?

There are currently 197 IBCLCs in Ireland. Most of them are working in the hospital systems as midwives and some are employed as nurse specialists in breastfeeding. Additionally, a number work as public health nurses who visit the mothers in their homes after birth (but these nurses also have other responsibilities within the community and don’t just deal with mothers and newborns). The lactation consultants who work in private practice tend to have come from parent-to-parent support groups such as Cuidiú (Irish word for “caring support”) and La Leche League.

Cuidiú, a parent-to-parent support organization which provides education  and support for all parents (from birth to the teen years), is inundated with requests from women all over the country for training to become Breastfeeding Counselors – and with help from government grants are doing so. La Leche League of Ireland is also reporting the same surge of interest in training, with attendance at their groups on the rise. There are support groups in the major centers of Dublin and Cork every day of the week and many IBCLC’s in Ireland are involved with this work.

Social marketing has had a huge impact in Ireland. We have big urban centers but also many rural mothers. These mothers have set up groups to support themselves and some of these groups have asked IBCLCs to join them.  They have asked because they know this format is mostly about peer support but they want the information on their boards to be correct so that “we don’t give incorrect information or overstep our boundaries”.

One of those mothers, Aideen Ni Cheilleher, has singlehanded done as much work as the rest of us put together over the last year in the area of connecting people together to support one another. She found herself with a year off work, with a newborn, a toddler and a 7 year old, while living in Kerry in a very rural area. In order to get support for herself in her tandem nursing, she set up a facebook group called Extended Breastfeeding in Ireland.  The group grew quickly, with 100 members within 24 hours of being started.  She now has 750 members! These mothers are very committed to breastfeeding and using breastfeeding as a parenting tool but felt isolated and alone in this journey. Now, there is a buzz and a sense of possibility about the future that hasn’t been around in a long time.

The statistics in Ireland have, for so long, concentrated on the lack of breastfeeding that in
some ways, the success of those who continue to feed has not been recognized. I asked those who have met or are meeting their breastfeeding goals, “What do you feel about the State of Breastfeeding in Ireland?” Among the usual complaints about the lack of support and good education in the hospital setting, there were lots of positives, such as the fact that there are so many parent-to-parent groups and that they have better access to support because they can find it online. They also commented that they realize THEY are the community now and feel encouraged to run events and make the changes themselves.

For me, what I hold onto is changing things one family at a time, being there for
mothers when they need support, providing information and letting them get on with the job of changing society as only this younger generation are capable of doing.

Geraldine Cahill has been an IBCLC since 2007 and works in Private Practice. She provides home visits for Mums in the early postpartum period and also provides consults at Touchstone Medical Practice. In addition, she runs Breastfeeding Classes for mothers alongside and complemetary to her work as a Childbirth Educator. Geraldine is also the current President of Cuidiú (a parent to parent support group) and represents them on the Irish National Breastfeeding Strategy and Implementation Committee.   She is also on the Education and Membership Committees of ILCA working with other IBCLC’s to enhance the educational needs of her profession.

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