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Leona O'Neill: Good on you Breastival – breastfeeding mums need our support

Hats off to Breastival, Belfast's annual celebration of breastfeeding, because, with Northern Ireland still lagging behind other UK regions and public awareness still patchy, new mums need all the support they can get, writes Leona O'Neill

It’s perfectly natural so why wouldn’t mums breastfeed in cafes and other public places?
Leona O'Neill

WORLD Breastfeeding Week 2018 ends today and what a week it was here in Northern Ireland.

The fabulous people at Breastival – the fun-filled family festival that celebrates breastfeeding – smashed the record at the Ulster Museum for the most children breastfed at the same time. Some 191 babies and toddlers were breastfed during the Big Latch On.

The festival has gone from strength to strength since two local mums, Dr Jennifer Hanratty and Jennie Wallace, set it up, gathering 40 mums on the lawn of City Hall to breastfeed their kids two years ago. The mums this year moved from the MAC to the Ulster Museum to give them more space. Around 1,500 people registered to take part.

Breastival is a bright, fun, vibrant and beautiful festival that normalises breastfeeding. And heaven knows we need that in the north.

Northern Ireland had the lowest breastfeeding initiation rates among UK regions, at 64 per cent, compared to England which is 83 per cent, Scotland at 74 per cent and Wales at 71 per cent.

There is no doubt that breast is best for both mum and baby. It helps with mother and baby bonding. The ‘love hormone’ oxytocin, which helps nurture emotional bonding, is released when breastfeeding, calming both mum and baby.

Breast milk is the perfect nutrition for your baby. It has all the vitamins, protein and fat that your baby needs to grow and has antibodies that help your baby fend off viruses and harmful allergies. It also helps lower the risks of developing asthma.

Breastfeeding helps baby’s brain development, with it being packed full of saturated fatty acids which are crucial for brain growth. It also helps promote proper development of your baby’s jaw, tongue, teeth and airways.

Breastfeeding helps mums also. It can lower the risk of breast cancer, especially if you breastfeed for longer than a year. This is because making milk limits breast cells' ability to act abnormally. Most women have fewer menstrual cycles when they're breastfeeding, which means lower oestrogen levels.

Breastfeeding mums also tend to lose their ‘baby weight’ more easily than bottle-feeding mums. When I was feeding my children I ate cake nearly every day and lost weight – a breastfeeding miracle if there ever was one.

Research commissioned by Unicef reveals that low breastfeeding rates in the UK are costing the NHS millions of pounds. Calculations from a mere handful of illnesses, where the evidence is strongest, show that moderate increases in breastfeeding could see potential annual savings to the NHS of approximately £40 million.

Also, if half those mothers who currently do not breastfeed were to do so for up to 18 months over their life, there would be 865 fewer cases of breast cancer, with cost savings to the NHS of over £21m. There would be improved quality of life equating to more than £10m.

All these benefits, yet breastfeeding is still not the norm in Northern Ireland, as it should be. There are many who support breastfeeding mothers and encourage them to keep going. But there are still a minority who feel mothers feeding their children in public is ‘exhibitionism’.

I remember feeding my son in a cafe in Belfast. I had a scarf over myself and him, nothing was on show. An older woman sat tutting at me for 10 minutes before coming over as she was leaving the cafe to tell me that what I was doing was disgusting and had put her off her food.

It upset me greatly. I was a new mother, just starting off on the breastfeeding journey and felt I was doing something wrong. It knocked my confidence. The next time I went into town I fed my son in the baby-changing area of a department store.

As I sat there, with the whiff of freshly changed nappies wafting from the overflowing bin beside me, I thought to myself this is not how things should be. I shouldn’t be hiding. I wasn’t doing anything wrong. I was doing the most natural thing in the world, which was the very best thing for my baby.

I lifted my child, went to the cafe, ordered a cup of coffee, sat on a comfy seat, fed my baby and no-one said a word to me. Apart from the young woman who brought me the coffee who asked if I wanted a glass of water while feeding the baby, or some napkins. She said she always drank a glass of water while feeding her daughter. I could have got up and hugged her for being nice in my hour of need.

We need more of that in Northern Ireland. We need more nice people, we need more supportive people, we need more people helping breastfeeding mothers to feel comfortable, not uneasy, while feeding their babies in public places. Breastfeeding needs to become normal, not just accepted.

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