Updated: Jun 26, 2021
“Your baby will crawl up to your breast and latch on”, so said the midwife at my antenatal class. When my bundle of joy was born it wasn’t quite so romantic. After a lengthy induction process followed by an emergency C Section I had to get a team around me to help me latch my baby girl onto the breast whilst whacked out of it on morphine and epidural to beat the band, it’s a blur.
I was determined to breastfeed. From my research it seemed that the benefits were too numerous to ignore. The risk of pneumonia, cold and viruses are reduced in breastfed babies. The likelihood of your baby contracting long term conditions like type 2 diabetes, Celiac and Crohns disease are reduced. Mothers have a lower risk of postmenopausal osteoporosis. Breastfeeding lowers your baby’s risk of sudden infant death syndrome and of contracting childhood cancers. Breastfeeding means both mother and baby are less likely to become obese in later years. Nursing your baby burns up to 500 calories a day, plus your uterus contracts quicker. The most incredible thing I learned was whenever your baby has symptoms of a sickness, the baby’s saliva goes into your nipple and your body produces the antibodies necessary to fight the sickness and these are then streamed through your mammary gland and gulped down by your infant. They don’t call breastmilk liquid gold for nothing.
It’s every mother’s right to feed her baby the way she chooses be it breast, formula or pumping but my personal resolve to stick with the breast has been met with many obstacles along the way, some from society and some from healthcare professionals.
“If you want to breastfeed you’ve got to keep ringing that hospital bell”, advised a seasoned mother in Holles Street. The midwives were exhausted and bleary eyed from an overload of bells chiming, hundreds of new moms like me begging them to come to their aid.
Very quickly I got used to strange hands shoving my nipple into my baby’s mouth. On night two I was shattered, my body ached and I was facing my first breastfeeding hurdle. A midwife asked me if I wanted four hours sleep and she’d give my baby a top up. I succumbed and allowed her to give Erin some formula, the lure of sleep was just too great. The next day guilt consumed me and I told her I was going to feed my baby myself, but if I wasn’t so adamant to breastfeed in the first place, this offering of a way out it would have made it easier to quit.
Nobody talks about how hard breastfeeding is, how utterly useless you feel starting out, and how mother and baby both need to find their way. It was particularly tough to manoeuvre myself into the right position to feed Erin when I’d no stomach strength after my C section. If we were more honest about how hard it all is perhaps more Irish women would stick with it, knowing that it does indeed get easier.
Ireland has one of the lowest breastfeeding rates in the world with barely half of all Irish women having ever tried it compared to up to 90% in other developed countries.
What’s holding us back from getting our boobs out to feed our babies? Could it be an intrinsic sense of shame, harking back to Old Catholic Ireland? New research published in the BMJ Global health journal found that in countries including Ireland breastfeeding rates are higher in areas where the proportion of Catholics are lower. The World Health Organisation recommends women breastfeed their babies exclusively for six months and then partially until the child reaches two. In Australia if you are having trouble breastfeeding you can check yourself back into the maternity ward for a few days, in the UK formula is not even stocked in some hospitals. I mentioned recently to a friend that I might keep feeding Erin until she’s a year old and she recoiled in horror saying, “but… but she’ll have teeth!”
My next breastfeeding battle was with an unlikely foe, my public health nurse. She was consumed by Erin’s weight gain and kept showing me how she was not performing well on the centile charts. I was told to pump an extra 180 mils of breast milk a day, and if I couldn’t then I should give a formula top up. You feel like a cow pumping daily, it can be soul destroying trying to reach the required 180 mils. In my case this just was not possible as my milk was not established. I had no option but to give some formula. However, I was to learn the hard way that giving formula and skipping a feed will only further diminish your milk supply. Feeling bamboozled by it all, I hired a lactation consultant, the best 90 euro I ever spent and soon I was exclusively breastfeeding.
Lactation consultant and midwife Caitriona McCarthy from theMilkway.ie says; “Less than 12% of women fall by the wayside after six months and don’t continue to breastfeed. The recommendation per 3000 births is one full time lactation consultant, there are 10,000 Births in Holles Street and there are one and a half posts covering that workload. You’re run off your feet.”
More education is needed in the area of feeding; “Public health nurses are no longer midwives, they get a very small training in breastfeeding”.
“If we had the same system as in the UK, you are covered by a community midwife as soon as you’ve had your baby for up to ten days, which covers the period where your milk comes in and all the difficulties that can ensue. Then you have the expertise of someone who knows about birth, labour and milk coming in”.
"Any public health nurse who recommends formula without advising the mother to get a good pump, the rate at which she should pump, and the time she should pump, is not doing her job properly.
Why such low levels in Ireland? “People associate breastfeeding with the intimacy of sex instead of appreciating that it’s the intimacy between a mother and a baby.
Why do some women struggle so much on their breastfeeding journey? “Behind breastfeeding there are a whole variety of hormones that will determine whether you have milk how much milk you have and the way it will come out.
“Women don’t give themselves a chance, if they knew the process wasn’t simple they might be less hard on themselves.
I hate the word discreet but when we breastfeed in public that’s exactly what we’re told to be in this country, the HSC pamphlet tells us that wearing a scarf means that the public won’t even know you’re doing it! We’re feeding our babies not starring in a public porn film! At first I tried to get the hang of the scarf thing but it was futile as my baby couldn’t find my nipple. Would you ask a man to cover his face while drinking his soup?
To produce breastmilk we melt our own body fat, starting with our derrieres, a fact Lifestyle blogger Grace Mongey (28) from Tallaght discovered when she dropped three stone a mere three weeks after having her baby girl Sienna (12 weeks). “I put the weight loss down to breastfeeding,” she says.
Breastfeeding came naturally to Grace until week two when she got mastitis but she powered through. “It was just in one boob and it was only when Sienna was latched it was like a pulling pain, inflamed and red. People told me if I got mastitis I’d have to stop feeding and they were just being negative about it but I was delighted I didn’t have to give it up.”
Grace documented some of her birth on the social media platform Snapchat, and she hopes she influences younger mums to breastfeed. It hasn’t all been positive for the young influencer who was slammed on social media after a night on the town when she consumed alcohol. She reveals; “I had calculated enough hours, it was 10am the next morning so the alcohol would have left my system but I just threw the breastmilk down the sink to shut them up and posted it on snapchat. Afterwards I was told that this milk would have been fine. People just want to have a say but I’m not able for it when it’s about my baby.”
Did feeding take over her life? “I find you have to be there 24/7 and you can’t pass control over to your partner which sometimes can be a bit annoying because he rolls over and you’re left doing everything but sometimes I like that It’s just me, knowing that it’s me that she wants all the time I love it.”
Model Alison McDonnell (35) from Rathfarnham is mother to baby Sienna (5 months), Harry (7), Sara (13) and Alex (15), she breastfed all of her kids. She said: “Everyone thinks you don’t need to toughen up your nipples but you do, I was bleeding and I was sore and I was waking up at night rocking her back and forth saying I can’t do this, but it was the guilt that got me through, thinking the others were breastfed so she needs this.”
On the services in this country Alison is dubious saying; “You know this thing of well that baby’s on the boob and then five minutes later the baby is off and the midwife’s gone and then the mother is struggling”. The model advises if you get past the first three weeks of mental torture you can do it, adding; “it’s agony and you’re body has gone through the mill, you’re like a basket case. You’re lactating, out of shape, you think what the f….ck? you actually feel like a slug but you get through it.”
Was breastfeeding in public a doddle the fourth time around? “I found it very uncomfortable to breastfeed in public and what I hate is the breastfeeding rooms.
“I was modelling in a posh department store and the breastfeeding room was in the changing room so there were men coming in and out to change their babies, but that was ok but it was when someone came in with a toddler to change them, the smell, would you eat your lunch while some one was shitting in a cubicle beside you?
“When you have a young baby say under six weeks old, trying to latch the baby on and be discreet about it is a nightmare, you have to have your full boob out because you can’t smother your baby, so when they’re that small it’s easier to bring them into a breast feeding room but then it stinks!”
Men viewing boobs as sexual is par for the course according to the Rathfarnham beauty; “Boobs sell, there’s no denying it, if you’re a hot girl with your boobs out men are going to look.
“I was breastfeeding Harry once, I had a short black dress on and those black sucky in tights and muslin clothes draped on my lap so there was no way anyone could see anything but a waiter turned around and says, not only do we get to see boob, we get to see panties too!”
As a model was it less intimidating? “If you weren’t confident it could be hard. I’m used to whipping off clothes doing fashion shows and don’t care who’s watching, stretch marks out and all, but most girls I know would be mortified because it’s the way we brought up, in old Catholic Ireland we’re made to feel ashamed”.
Is it the fear of saggy boobs that stops Irish women from nursing? “I think the women of our nation have become too vain. They want to get straight back into the gym, but your boobs will stretch so much during pregnancy when the milk is building up, so you’re still going to have burst balloons anyway, regardless if you breastfeed or not”.
“The minute you become pregnant your body changes, fat in places that you didn’t have it before and your body does that for breastfeeding.”
Any thoughts on the brelfie (breast feeding selfie) craze? “Your boobs go all veiny and lumpy and your nipples go a weird shape and they look gross so these celebs posting those brelfies have photo shopped them to death”. No way!!
Does it take over your life? “It’s very time consuming but when you know the benefits it’s a bit selfish of people not to try”.
Any downsides? “You’ve just given birth. You feel your sexiness has gone out the window, your partner views you as this lactating mother earth thing and you’re attached to this child all the time, I felt that this time round especially.”
Actress Leigh Arnold (37) from Foxrock is currently finishing her first novel and breastfed her three children Hunter (5), Piper (13 months) and Flynn who lost his young life to SIDS).
The actress got stick for breastfeeding her baby upon returning to Dublin from the UK. “I’m not a breastfeeding Nazi nor will I ever be, but when I arrived back to Dublin I’d be having lunch out with friends and I’d breastfeed whenever Hunter needed a feed and I found it astonishing and became quite self -conscious of myself because I was being questioned why are you doing that, sure what’s the point of doing that when you’ve got formula.”
“It felt like I was being looked at with raised eyebrows as they told me it wasn’t necessary, I found myself explaining in a but, but, but kinda way.
When I came back to Ireland I found myself so embarrassed by some of my friends that I’d go into a bathroom to feed my baby, I didn’t like the looks I was getting and I felt kind of ashamed.
“Whereas when I was living in the UK, the way they’ve been programmed as opposed to the way we have meant that it was completely normal.
“We have no right as women to judge what another person is doing. I come from a family where breastfeeding was a normal thing. It’s not like my mum and my aunts were sitting in a field singing kumbaya with their boobs were out, but for me it was normalised.
For Leigh it was natural for her child to feed from the outside as he or she had thrived from within her and as she says, “It was the most empowering time of my life, for the first time in my life I had achieved something great being a mother. With Flynn I got mastitis and that was very painful”, Adding, “I’d made so many screw ups in my life but nothing was as true and as honest in my life until I became a mum.”
Hunter was six weeks old when the actress landed the role in Deception; “I moved us all over from the UK to the West of Ireland and I said to the producers, “look I’m breastfeeding is that ok” and they were so accommodating, it wasn’t even questioned.
“I wasn’t being demanding or trying to be a diva it was just like if I need to feed during a scene is it ok if we work around it and do another scene so I can feed my baby”?
Her reason for breastfeeding? “I never wanted to give my child a man- made formula, I wanted to give my baby the formula made in my body.
Leigh feels nursing is making a comeback but slowly; “70% of my peers in Ireland put their babies straight onto formula”.
“There’s not enough outsources that explain the benefits the conversations amongst my peers outside Ireland were all about breastfeeding and it wasn’t a taboo, It wasn’t shameful, there wasn’t a weirdness to the conversation because everyone does it.
“I don’t hear people in Ireland talking about it openly, it’s almost whispered, it’s almost oh my god is she doing that really? There needs to stop being a sense of embarrassment or self- consciousness here, because you’re stopping people from doing the most natural thing in the world”.
Leigh felt the sexiest she’s ever felt whilst nursing her babies saying; “I lost two stone in three weeks, my husband fancied me rotten, it was one of the most romantic times of my life, for me the endorphins were going off in my brain and it’s all connected it’s not just there to provide milk it is there to provide so many great things for the woman’s body, hormones to fight off postnatal depression, there are so many benefits and that needs to be told to young women during their pregnancy”.
“We’re told to write a birth plan, but what about an after birth plan? Because I ended up having two C sections, you can’t plan your birth but you can plan what happens afterwards.”
So after all that, my feeling is that if you want to breastfeed in this country you need to take the public reaction with a pinch of salt and be brave. A sentiment echoed by my breastfeeding support group, which we aptly name “the boob group”.
In a café an acquaintance told me it was great that I had no shame breastfeeding in public but what about the other people I may be offending.
A group of teenagers on the Clontarf seafront spotted me feeding Erin in a shelter and roared, “Look at the knockers on your one.” At a friend’s wedding a mate’s husband uttered; “Why would you bother with that shite the kids turn out the same anyway,” adding, “You know formula isn’t that expensive.”
Some months on I have the confidence now to feed my baby anywhere from a bus tour to a plane to Pere Lachaise Graveyard in Paris, that’s the beauty, you can do it anywhere. The amount of people who have called me mad for allowing my daughter to use me as a soother, they’d rather I stick a dummy in her mouth to shut her up at night. Experienced mothers with their tuppence worth tell you; “You’re getting her into bad habits, not teaching her to self soothe, you’re ruining her, you need to get your life back.” Well she is my life and weren’t boobs here before they invented dummies? Mothers know breast don’t they?