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If they’re not your boobs, butt out

An Cailín Rua

Anne-Marie Flynn

LAST week, Jamie Oliver came under fire after throwing himself - feet first - into the breastfeeding debate – a minefield at the best of times. In a radio interview, the celebrity chef who has previously campaigned for healthier school dinners and sugary drinks tax, stated that his new desire was to “fix” Britain’s problem with breastfeeding.
“It’s something that’s very natural to us,” said Oliver. “It’s easy, it’s more convenient, it’s more nutritious, it’s better, and it’s free.” Within minutes, he was being castigated online. Many rightly pointed out that Oliver could have little understanding of the real challenges of breastfeeding; that while for some women it can tick all of those boxes, as well as being a wonderfully intimate means of bonding with your child, for others it is anything but easy or convenient. It can be painful, exhausting and soul-destroying, and sometimes just not physically possible. And many suggested that with his comments, Oliver was just another man telling women what they should do with their bodies.
Others, however, welcomed Oliver’s comments and support, hailing them as an important contribution to a discussion that needs to be had.
Now, before we go any further, I must insert a disclaimer. I am not a mother, nor do I have any immediate plans for motherhood. But I am a woman, and as a not dispassionate observer, I’m always struck by the polarising nature of the breastfeeding debate. Either you’re for it or you’re not – and the middle ground seems a little bare.  

European low
Breastfeeding in Ireland merits discussion. According to the recent Growing Up in Ireland study, we have the worst rates in the world, with just 56 percent of respondents (48 percent in Mayo) reporting that their child was ever breastfed, versus a European norm of 90 percent. Many of our maternity hospitals fail to adhere to the National Breastfeeding Strategy guidelines. And breastfeeding in Ireland has in recent generations been badly stigmatised, with many older women steered away from it by their doctors. Formula was in those times also seen as a symbol of status – if you could afford it, you used it. Feeding in public is still rare and women cite embarrassment as a factor. So much so, that many infants are still treated to their lunch or dinner in public toilets. ‘Breast is best’ messaging has, ironically been embraced by formula companies; but in doing so, they are very subtly undermining it, and sending out the message that: “Breast is best, but formula is fine too.”
Promotion spend by the government is pitifully low; a recent article in the national media cited an industry expert indicating that it was under €100,000. When was the last time you saw a TV campaign promoting breastfeeding? Yet, apart from the health and wellbeing benefits it brings to both mothers and babies, there is an economic argument for investing in promotion. The cost to the state of treating infections in infants stands at between €12 million and €15 million, yet breastfeeding can prevent many of these infections.
Oliver later clarified his comments, stating that he was not, in fact, planning to start a campaign to encourage more women to breastfeed; rather, he wished to support women who do want to breastfeed, and make it easier for them to do so. The debate therefore is – or should be - far more complex and nuanced than a stand-off between two opposing points of view.

Choice
Many women don’t breastfeed, or combination feed (a mix of breast and bottle) for the reasons outlined above – pain, exhaustion, or infections. Some simply cannot. And while encouragement of breastfeeding is important, aggressive promotion can be guilty of prioritising the needs of the child above the wellbeing of mothers.
And, in the age of equality, many women would argue that if they as mothers are completely indispensable to their children around the clock from the very beginning, how can a balanced parenting approach ever emerge?
Therefore, if breastfeeding rates are to grow, we need to understand and remove the barriers. But we also need to accept that there should always be a choice, and that ‘support’ and ‘encouragement’ should never equate to pressure. Ultimately, the one thing to remember is this -  If they’re not your boobs, it’s really none of your business.

 

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