Normalising Breastfeeding in Ireland

Key Messages

Breastfeeding is widely considered to be the best feeding option for both baby and mother.

Breastfeeding rates in Ireland are the lowest in Europe and among the lowest in the world.

Embarrassment and negative attitudes from others towards breastfeeding discourage Irish mothers from breastfeeding.

Breastfeeding support groups in which mothers can share experiences could help change attitudes towards breastfeeding.

The Issue

Breastfeeding is widely considered to be the best feeding option for both baby and mother. Research shows that it promotes children’s health and mother-child bonding as well as prevents diseases, and WHO recommends that children should be breastfed for at least the first two years of life to achieve optimal growth, development and health.

Nonetheless, the rate of mothers who breastfeed varies considerably across Europe. While breastfeeding rates are at 81 % in the UK and 90 % in Scandinavian countries, only 56 % of Irish mothers breastfeed.

Cultural Contexts

The low breastfeeding rates have been attributed to a combination of factors such as religious ideals, strong marketing of formula feeding and maternity units that do not push breastfeeding enough to mothers. Additionally, two qualitative studies from 2011 and 2016, respectively, show that negative attitudes towards breastfeeding are a central barrier to breastfeeding among Irish mothers. These negative attitudes include both those of the mothers themselves and those of their families and society in general.

Irish mothers report feeling shameful and embarrassed about breastfeeding – especially in public, but even in front of friends and family members. This, in part, is due to the reactions they face from their social environment. Several of the mothers in the studies describe experiencing negative reactions to breastfeeding from others. One mother recalled an episode where a friend called breastfeeding disgusting and another one where an older neighbour told a child that was being breastfed: “Tell your mommy to put away the old boob and give you a bottle. That will sort you out.”

As a consequence of these negative social attitudes, many Irish mothers decide not to breastfeed at all and those who do often resort to public toilets and develop knacks of hiding their breastfeeding when in public settings. By contrast, mothers who are part of breastfeeding support groups feel more comfortable breastfeeding. Participating in these enable them to seek information, share experiences, socialize and build a culture around breastfeeding.

Policy Implications

Normalising breastfeeding should be an important element of maternal health promotion in Ireland. Among other things, this requires a long-term effort to change general cultural attitudes. However, as this case story shows, in the meantime, breastfeeding support groups can help mothers develop confidence about breastfeeding.

Links to Further Reading

  1. Leahy-Warren, P., Creedon, M, O’Mahony & Mulcahy, H. (2016). Normalising breastfeeding within a formula feeding culture: An Irish qualitative study. Women and Birth, 30(2):103-110.
  2. Shortt, E., McGorrian, C. & Kelleher, C. (2013). A qualitative study of infant feeding decisions among low-income women in the Republic of Ireland. Midwifery, 29:453-460.