Business is booming for the producers of breast milk substitutes, artificial milks, infant formula, processed cow’s milk — call it what you want — and that corporate success is built on declining breastfeeding rates worldwide.
Admittedly, those market growth projections might be slightly off now because of Covid-19, but stop for a minute. We spend $45 billion on something that our bodies make superiorly for free!
Once a year, breastfeeding advocates and public health proponents get a week or two to trumpet the benefits of breastfeeding. World Breastfeeding Week falls in August, National Breastfeeding Week in October, and invariably there are newspaper articles, radio and news reports and head-shaking, tutting articles about Ireland’s low breastfeeding rates — 50% of Irish babies exclusively breastfeeding leaving hospital, dropping to 15% by six months.
I have been paying attention to World Breastfeeding Week for about five years, since my first child was born and my eyes were opened to the world of lactation. Before that I was clueless.
Being honest, I felt pretty clueless for the first year of motherhood — dealing with the huge life adjustment and trying to keep a baby fed and slept.
However, there’s nothing like a crying baby to accelerate a learning curve and I devoured books, scientific papers, dedicated websites and pretty much any information I could lay my hand on about breastfeeding.
It appealed to the nerd in me. The biological intricacies and linkages between brain, breast, hormones, skin, nose, gut and microbiome of the mother and baby are almost magical.
I was constantly discovering something new. For instance, for years breastmilk researchers couldn’t understand why breastmilk contained a particular type of sugar when immature infant guts weren’t able to digest it. Scientists finally worked out that the breastmilk contained these sugars to feed the good bacteria in the babies gut and help establish its microbiome. How clever is that?
Or that once a woman’s milk supply is established around the six-week mark, her body doesn’t have to make increasing volumes for her growing baby. Impressively, her body simply adapts the constituents of her milk to meet the nutritional needs of the baby. In contrast, the amount of artificial milk fed to a baby has to be increased as the baby grows up to six months, when it levels off as solid food is introduced.
And the fact that mothers can produce antibodies in their breastmilk to protect babies from pathogens and viruses that the baby has been exposed to still blows my mind!
Each year, World Breastfeeding Week tries to spread the word about why breastfeeding is important. This year the theme was “support breastfeeding for a healthier planet”.
Well before it was fashionable, breastmilk was a ‘renewable’, ‘plastic-free’, ‘locally sourced’ food. It requires no methane emitting cows, energy heavy processing, transport, packaging or heat and electricity to sterilise and prepare it.
The WHO’s message was to support breastfeeding for a healthier planet. It’s a call to governments, health systems and societies to support those who want to breastfeed. Encouragement that breastfeeding not just benefits public health but planetary health.
What we rarely hear on World Breastfeeding Week is a big announcement by the Minister for Health on increased funding for breastfeeding support or the creation of hundreds of lactation consultant posts.
I’ll give Minister Stephen Donnelly the benefit of the doubt this year, but how about a simple Happy World Breastfeeding Week tweet?
What we don’t talk about during successive Breastfeeding Weeks are the concrete steps we could take to help increase breastfeeding rates and duration.
The HSE, Department of Health and WHO all believe that mothers should be encouraged and enabled to breastfeed exclusively for the first six months and continue thereafter as part of a wider diet until two years of age or beyond.
This isn’t rocket science. Simple measures like early skin-to-skin contact with mother and babies, avoiding early supplementary formula feeding or ‘top ups’ and easily accessible and consistent information and counselling run over the antenatal, intrapartum and extended postnatal period are proven interventions that would boost rates.
Other measures like extended maternity leave to one year or entitlement to breastfeeding breaks for working mothers until their babies are a year old will also create a better breastfeeding culture.
Stronger legislation to shield mothers from marketing messages of formula companies and stringent policing of the marketing practices of formula companies would protect breastfeeding.
It’s not up to mothers and babies to implement these changes. It takes political and societal will.
Successive Irish governments have failed to help Irish mothers, babies and families. This government could improve the long term health of our population — if it wanted to.
Unfortunately, this revolution in breastfeeding culture is not going to happen overnight. If you are pregnant and want to breastfeed or are currently breastfeeding and want to plug into local support, there is lots available from volunteer organisations like Cuidiu Cork and La Leche League. Breastfeeding counsellors offer phone support seven days of the week and are currently hosting free breastfeeding support meetings and breastfeeding preparation classes online. You can find out more information from the Cuidiu Cork and La Leche League Cork websites and Facebook pages.
Lactation consultants are specialised breastfeeding experts and can help mothers and babies overcome more complicated breastfeeding issues. Public health nurses can refer mothers to community lactation consultants or a directory of lactation consultants in private practice can be found on the Association of Lactation Consultants in Ireland website.