Anne Hailes: Breastival festival highlights why mother's milk is still the best for baby

Jennie Wallace with her daughter, Cleo

FOR as long as time, mothers have breastfed their babies – so why is it necessary to hold a festival to promote the idea of this natural way of nourishing the newly born?

Sadly, there is a cultural issue, especially here in Northern Ireland; we have the lowest figures for breast feeding in the world with only four-in-10 mothers choosing or able to feed their babies. Why?

It's sad to hear some of our politicians and city fathers calling nursing mothers 'exhibitionists' and women criticising young mothers who are feeding their children in a public place, often because there is no facility to do so in private – and why should they?

This is the most natural and healthy breakfast, lunch or tea for a little baby, quality milk that will give them nutrition and protect against illness.

All of these and more will be discussed and celebrated at this years Breastival being held at The Ulster Museum on Saturday August 3, from 9.30am until 5pm. This is the festivals' third year and promises to be the biggest and best yet, with upwards of 1,700 wives, husbands and children set to take part in this special day. Admission is free, but such is the interest that registration is required.

Breastival was the idea of two women who met when they were attending a breastfeeding support group, each with daughters of the same age. Two Jennifers, Jennie Wallace and Jennifer Hanrattey co-founded the festival with the challenge to put up a kind of big colourful umbrella under which parents could come and feel happy to talk, ask questions, learn from experts and of course feed their babies without concern.

As Jennie says: "Belfast is a festival city so why not celebrate what is normal and educate the public."

The two girls certainly have hit on a successful venture. Last year they received recognition with the Mama Breastfeeding Championship Award in Glasgow. Mama is the largest independent annual midwifery and maternity conference in the UK and, such was the impact of our local entry, international delegates left saying they'd never seen anything like it before – unique and a model for other countries.

Jennie is concerned that, despite the NHS and World Health Organisation recommendations that children be breastfed until two years of age and beyond, in Northern Ireland fewer than seven per cent are fed in this natural way beyond six months.

She tells me: "There are many negative cultural attitudes facing women here apart from being insulted in public when they are trying to give their babies the food they need – going back to work brings up issues, often women have to turn to substitutes like formula milk which is over priced and there's no need for it when natural food is readily available."

But what about the women who can't breastfeed?

Jennie says: "Breastfeeding is a skill and, with support, many of these problems can be overcome, But the health service is over-stretched so help is needed from other sources,

She adds: "Expressing milk is an option, as is donor milk."

There's a milk bank in Fermanagh, the only one of its kind in this country: The Sperrin Lakeland Milk Bank accepts expressed milk which is sent in insulated containers to the bank where it's checked for bacteria and pasteurised, then stored and sent to neonatal units as required.

Information like this comes to light at the festival, and also how low breastfeeding rates in the UK are costing the NHS millions of pounds and how this type of feeding can improve quality of life by preventing disease for both mother and child.

There will be panel discussions with experts discussing legislation, there will also be representatives from the medical profession. Another important topic explains what happens post-weaning when there is the potential for depression caused by hormonal changes. But it's not all talking!

"We have the Global Latch On as well as fun topics and kids' workshops," Jennie explains.

"Sling Swing is popular – it's basically a dance class which you do whilst the baby is held in a carrier close to its mother as she moves!"

When Breastival board member Nuala Toman accepted the award at the ceremony in Glasgow she said:

"We are so delighted to have won a Mama award and get the recognition for all the time and the effort we put in every year. We are passionate about changing how society views breastfeeding, challenging outdated attitudes and celebrating breastfeeding with humour and creativity."

I know one thing for sure. There are many woman of my vintage who would have been grateful for such support.

:: To register for this free day and for more information on Breastival, visit

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