herald

Wednesday 15 August 2018

YES - Women want to give their babies the very best and that means breastfeeding wherever they need to

Marisa Mackle hates breastfeeding in public. And she is not alone.

That's one of the reasons we have the lowest breastfeeding rate in the world. In 2008, the last time the HSE tried to find out why only half of Irish mothers try to breastfeed and most give up within a month, they pointed to the fact that Irish women don't like breastfeeding in public.

Irish women should breastfeed "discreetly", as Mackle suggests: in a private room or under a shawl. This is the kind of breastfeeding which Marisa Mackle has "nothing at all against". It's not surprising she herself turned to bottles after two weeks. If she'd gone on breastfeeding any longer she'd have forgotten how to speak English or got lost under her poncho.

Shouldn't we look at why Irishwomen are too scared to feed their babies in public, the way nature intended? The sight of a breast-feeding woman is a provocation in Ireland because a breastfeeding woman is obviously sexual and fertile and involved in some sort of big woman's love affair with the little brat at her breast.

We have a long, long history of unease with our bodies. We particularly hate female bodies and bodies are at their most female having babies. In the recent past, if girls became mothers outside wedlock, we often locked them out of sight in Magdalene laundries. As the scandal of the 219 unmarked children's graves at the Bethany home in Rathgar shows, we often didn't care what happened to their babies, as long as they were out of sight. Small wonder that as soon as bottle-feeding became an option, the rate of breastfeeding in Ireland dropped like a stone -- far faster than it did in Britain. Bottles and the infant formula inside them had to be better than anything a woman's body could make because you had to buy them. And Irish people like buying things.

Breastfed infants suffer fewer tummy and chest infections, fewer urinary tract infections, fewer ear infections, less eczema and less asthma than bottle-fed ones. They have less risk of having diabetes, Hodgkin's Disease and possibly leukaemia. In adulthood, they have less chance of getting late-onset diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity. Mothers who breastfeed have less chance of developing pre-menopausal breast cancer, ovarian cancer and osteoporosis.

We have among the highest rates in Europe for all of these adult illnesses and yet nobody ever makes the connection with our place at the bottom of the European breastfeeding league. Which points to another reason for our low breastfeeding rate: the fact that our doctors tend to the patriarchal view that anything a woman can do for herself isn't worth doing.

We need to insist on the importance of giving our babies the breast because breast milk is important for babies. That sometimes means bringing our babies to restaurants, as Marisa Mackle's friend did.

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