National Study of Breastfeeding Support in Ireland Reveals Gaps in Health Service

Published: 19 Oct, 2022

TU Dublin and Bainne Beatha have launched a landmark report, ‘Breastfeeding support in Ireland: a national study,’ capturing the breastfeeding experiences of almost 5,500 women.

Presenting the report's findings to the Irish Women's Parliamentary Caucus today, Bainne Beatha is calling for immediate government action to support women and families who are let down by inadequate and inaccessible breastfeeding support.

The research, conducted in collaboration with Dr Liz O'Sullivan of Technological University Dublin, describes an under-resourced maternity system, resulting in a lack of adequate knowledge, time and support from healthcare professionals during the particularly sensitive early period of establishing breastfeeding. The findings also indicate that the promotion of the importance of breastfeeding, without appropriate support in place, is actively perpetuating breastfeeding trauma and grief.

Speaking ahead of the launch event, Dr Liz O'Sullivan, Lecturer in Nutrition at TU Dublin, said:

“This study suggests the biggest drop off in exclusive breastfeeding happened in the first week of the child’s life. Families are being let down by the lack of access to expert help at the right time. Our participants reported that formula was regularly offered as a solution to breastfeeding problems when what they actually wanted was help with breastfeeding. We know that skilled, timely breastfeeding support is associated with successful breastfeeding, so we should be providing this.”

Deborah Byrne, Bainne Beatha founder, added:

“We want Ireland to reach a place where nobody's wish and right to breastfeed is taken away from them because of under-resourcing, under-funding or a lack of training. As a society, we have a collective responsibility to ensure that all receive the best possible support during pregnancy and post-birth so that they can make informed decisions on breastfeeding. Telling women they should breastfeed antenatally and then not supporting them to do so postnatally is unethical and results in grief, guilt and trauma if breastfeeding doesn’t work out. Healthcare professionals and mothers want the same thing, to have the time to establish breastfeeding postnatally. It’s time for the government to help make that happen.”

Survey participants said that formula was commonly suggested as a solution to challenges with breastfeeding, instead of specialised breastfeeding support. The findings document the missed opportunities across the maternity and wider health care system in supporting parents who wish to breastfeed; the physical, the mental and financial cost of those who encounter challenges, and the opportunities for improvement which would lead to a more equitable, person-centred and supportive health care system for all.

In Ireland, 62.3% of mothers initiate breastfeeding in maternity hospitals compared to initiation rates of 90% in Australia, 81% in the UK and 79% in the USA. Based on the most recent nationally representative data available, fewer than 6% of babies in Ireland are exclusively breastfed to 6 months2. The WHO global target for 2030 is for at least 70% of babies to be exclusively breastfed in the first 6 months of life. Ireland has much to do to achieve those rates.

The Department of Health and WHO recommends exclusive breastfeeding of infants for the first 6 months, after which mothers are recommended to continue breastfeeding, in combination with suitably nutritious and safe complementary foods, until their children are 2 years of age or older. Breastfeeding provides a healthy, practical, and sustainable source of nutrition that protects the child's right to the highest health and benefits for the mother's health and well-being, so it should be protected, promoted and supported.

Bainne Beatha is calling on the government to recognise that funding breastfeeding support is a prudent health investment in the future and is calling for immediate action to improve breastfeeding support services, including:

  • Adequate staffing levels in maternity units to provide timely, individual, and competent breastfeeding support from the moment of birth until breastfeeding is fully established.
  • Address the current challenges of recruiting lactation consultants (IBCLCs) by widening the range of professions from which lactation consultants can be recruited into the HSE, and by providing dedicated funding for the training of additional IBCLCs.
  • Facilitate regular breastfeeding training for health care professionals in line with up-to-date evidence-based practice.
  • Provide equal and free access to specialised breastfeeding-related clinical consultations e.g. tongue tie assessment and correction, IBCLC consultations or hire of breastfeeding pumps free of charge.
  • Create breastfeeding-friendly environments across all community and acute healthcare settings, by providing appropriate resources and support for those who are breastfeeding while receiving other medical care.
  • Review the HSE Breastfeeding Action Plan 2016 - 20224 based on current national and international evidence in consultation with a multi-stakeholder, cross-departmental working group.

Download the report here.