Belfast Breastival celebrates the natural way to feed your baby
In this World Breastfeeding Week, Belfast hosts a brand new festival that celebrates motherhood and that just might break the Northern Ireland record for the most children being breastfed in one place. Jenny Lee finds out more
DESPITE the NHS and World Health Organisation recommendation that children be breastfed until the age of two, only 7 per cent of children in Northern Ireland are breastfed past the age of six months.
Belfast academic and mother-of-one Dr Jennifer Hanratty is spearheading a group of passionate women trying to normalise breastfeeding within our society by founding Breastival. This one-day festival on Saturday August 5, at Belfast's MAC, aims to provide advice, support and celebrate breastfeeding.
"Breast is not best, it’s biologically normal and it needs to become socially and culturally normal again. And just because breastfeeding is natural doesn’t mean it is easy. It isn't something that should only happen in private – it's part of everyday life so why not shout that from the rooftops with a big celebration?" says Jennifer, who is mum to 13-month-old Eimear.
The QUB research psychologist, who found support in attending her local La Leche League support group, admits that the first time she breastfed Eimear in public alone was a nerve-racking experience.
“I was surprised by how nervous I felt. I got myself a quiet table in a coffee shop, hid behind the pram and waited for her to wake for a feed. Of course she slept for ages.
"Naively I decided to take the opportunity to browse round the shops. Inevitably, 10 minutes later she woke screaming for a feed and I ended up feeding her sitting in the kids section in House of Fraser. The staff didn't bat an eyelid. After that I didn't think twice about feeding anywhere we happen to be."
Jennifer, who still breastfeeds her daughter, admits she has had negatives experiences from time to time when feeding in public.
"I still experience isolation at times when people who aren't used to seeing breastfeeding feel uncomfortable and avoid chatting or sitting with me and baby.
"The public can support breastfeeding by giving new mums a smile or even just chat to her while she feeds. I understand how hard it can be for some people – after all, we grow up in a society where breasts are so sexualised that seeing them used for their intended purpose can be shocking. That's no excuse to be rude though."
While a growing number of businesses are signing up to the Public Health Agency's Breasting Welcome Here scheme, Jennifer believes more need to be done to encourage and support breastfeeding mothers.
"An individual woman's choice on how she feeds her baby says nothing about her abilities as a mother, but we need to make sure that women who do choose to breastfeed are well supported. That includes being able to access information and knowledgeable support where and when it is needed.
"This is a massive and costly public health issue and we need big social, cultural and legal changes to tackle it. Big steps also need to be taken to improve the inadequate legal protection for a child's right to be fed at the breast."
On a practical level, Jennifer suggests staff could offer breastfeeding mothers a glass of water or be prepared to cut up her food if she's busy feeding or reheat it if it's gone cold.
"Some mums will want to feed in private but others won't. Try not to make assumptions and instead ask a lady what she wants. Please don't offer toilets as a place to feed. You wouldn't eat your food in the toilet, so why should baby?"
Breastival will also play host to The Big Latch On – a worldwide event which takes place at registered locations around the world, where women gather together to breastfeed and offer peer support to each other. This will be an opportunity to help break the record for most children feeding in one place in Northern Ireland.
Lord Mayor of Belfast Nuala McAllister has been an active supporter of breastfeeding and will act as the official counter for the record attempt, currently held at 209 people.
Other events at Breastival include parent and baby yoga taster sessions, a baby sling dancing event, discussions on breastfeeding the premature baby, tandem breastfeeding and becoming a milk donor. There will be a debate on what age children should stop breastfeeding, a workshop on mindfulness for feeding and a photographic exhibition by Laura Fernandez featuring contributions from 100 local parents showcasing the realities of breastfeeding as part of everyday life.
Belfast trained breast surgeon Ciara McGoldrick, who is a strong advocate for the benefit of breastfeeding for lifelong breast health, is among experts taking part, as is English pharmacist Dr Wendy Jones.
Wendy, author of Breastfeeding and Medication and The Importance of Dads and Grandmas To The Breastfeeding Mother says that anxiety and depression affect around one in five new mothers and stresses that "feeling depressed or anxious does not make you a bad mother".
"The main message I want to get to everyone is that it is very common for our moods to vary day to day, week to week, month to month. The hormones which make milk also provide some protection against depression but sometimes feeling that we haven’t managed to feed in the way that we planned can make depression worse. "
During lonely night feeds, she encourages women to seek support from other mothers on social media who are probably feeling the same. And if feelings of depression continue she says it's "important to tell those around you how you feel – family and doctors – and to get some medication which is breastfeeding friendly if you need it."
Wendy also says it's possible to take antihistamines and breastfeed as normal and to have pain relief if you need it for things like migraines.
One of her talks at Breastival is entitled Sex, Drugs and Rock n Roll, in which she aims to dispel the pump and dump myths and give mums the thumbs up to enjoying themselves.
"I love this controversial title. What I want to talk about is how mums can enjoy all the fun they enjoy like having massages, having nail extensions, enjoying having their hair done, exercise and indeed a glass or two of wine. But that, of course, illicit drugs shouldn’t form part of a breastfeeding mum’s life."
:: Breastival takes place at Belfast's MAC theatre on Saturday August 5. For further information and to pre-register for this free event visit Breastivalbelfast.co.uk. For details of other locations for the Big Latch On or to become a host yourself visit Biglatchon.org