Speech for National Breastfeeding Conference

Good morning Ladies and Gentlemen. It is my pleasure to be here today to open your conference on “Breastfeeding in Ireland: The Way Forward”

Firstly, I would like to communicate the Minister for Health and Children´s apologies for not being here himself to open the conference. However, I would like to reassure you of Minister Martin’s commitment and support for breastfeeding.

The Health Promotion Unit of the Department of Health and Children is also delighted to mark National Breastfeeding Week by sponsoring this conference and by making available new breastfeeding promotional posters, car stickers and calendars.

I must say firstly, I am surprised at how few men are present here today. As we all know babies come in both sexes and breastfeeding should not be seen as an issue that concerns only women. Indeed research clearly shows that the support of partners is vital to the success of breastfeeding.

Breast milk, as we all know, is specifically designed to optimise a baby´s growth and development. The research evidence on the value of breastfeeding, for mothers and their babies, is very compelling. And this body of evidence is growing all the time.

Dr. Forsyth will be telling you today about the Dundee Infant Feeding Study. This longitudinal study is providing convincing evidence that the health benefits of breastfeeding don´t just last during infancy, but are sustained throughout childhood, adolescence and probably into adulthood as well.

Just as importantly, breastfeeding provides a unique early bonding experience for infants and their mothers. This contributes greatly to the baby´s psychological, emotional and social development.

There are some indications that Irish breastfeeding initiation rates have improved since the publication of the National Breastfeeding Policy for Ireland in 1994.

This has been due largely to the participation by most Irish Maternity Hospitals in the WHO/UNICEF “Baby Friendly” Breastfeeding Initiative and to the work of community health professionals and voluntary mother-to-mother groups like La Leche League and Cuidiú.

Today you will have an opportunity to hear about how the ‘Baby Friendly’ Breastfeeding Initiative is sowing the seeds for breastfeeding success in Ireland –North & South – and in the United States. Also you will hear about community efforts to improve breastfeeding support from both the statutory and voluntary sectors. With both La Leche League and Cuidiú sharing with you their philosophy for the voluntary support of Irish breastfeeding mothers.

Despite the small improvements that have been achieved in breastfeeding rates, the national targets set in the 1994 policy have not been reached and Ireland continues to have the lowest breastfeeding rates in Europe.

This means that the majority of Irish infants are deprived of the major nutritional, immunological and psychological benefits which breastfeeding confers.

The Government’s commitment to greater awareness raising and support for breastfeeding is confirmed in the Health Strategy.

Under National Goal No. 1 of the Strategy a key objective is the strengthening of measures to promote and support breastfeeding.

To this end, the first Irish National Breastfeeding Coordinator, Maureen Fallon was appointed last year and, in March of this year, a National Committee on Breastfeeding was appointed.

They are jointly charged with undertaking a comprehensive review of the 1994 National Policy, as well as advising on initiatives needed to improve both the up-take and duration of breastfeeding in Ireland.

The work of the Committee to date has involved looking at research data and models of breastfeeding interventions that have worked elsewhere.

The Committee is also addressing such issues as resource development and ways of addressing the barriers and the negative breastfeeding perceptions that prevail in Ireland. A multi-disciplinary approach is being examined in order to develop breastfeeding promotional modules for different settings in society, from schools and colleges to workplaces etc. Examining ways of improving the current support systems available for women who opt to breastfeed is an integral part of the work of the Committee. An evaluation of current breastfeeding protective measures and the need for further legislation is also being studied.

The are two fundamental issues that need to be addressed if we are to improve Irish breastfeeding rates, and these are:

  • The need to influence more Irish parents to choose breastfeeding for their children. This will involve ensuring all parents have the breastfeeding information they require to make informed choices about infant feeding. It is no longer sufficient that those providing maternity services impart this information to parents. Research by the North Western Health Board, the Eastern Regional Health Authority and the Midland Health Board has shown that almost half of prospective Irish parents have made their infant feeding decisions prior to becoming pregnant. Therefore, we need to focus on the importance of breastfeeding at a wider societal level.
  • Of equal importance is the need to offer the right kinds of support to mothers who have chosen to breastfeed so that they can do so successfully and for as long as they wish. This will involve:
    • Reviewing existing support sources and deciding how these can be best utilised and
    • identifying new support needs. This will be crucial in deprived and marginalized communities where the practice of breastfeeding is particularly low. Supporting breastfeeding also requires us to challenge the barriers to breastfeeding wherever these arise. These barriers can exist in home situations, in the community, in work situations and in recreational areas.

By ensuring that women who opt to breastfeed are successful, we create a resource pool of experienced breastfeeding mothers who can and do influence new mothers to see breastfeeding as achievable and enjoyable.

Collaborative action between different government departments (eg. Depts. of Education, Justice Equality and Law Reform, Social Community & Family Affairs, my own Dept. of the Environment& Rural Development, as well as Health & Children) and between the statutory and voluntary providers of health care will be crucial if we are to achieve and sustain higher breastfeeding rates.


Once again, I am delighted to have been asked to represent the Minister for Health & Children here this morning, as I too share his view that breastfeeding is critical for the public health of our country.

Our common aim, therefore, should be to re-establish breastfeeding in Ireland as the cultural norm, thereby making it the natural choice for the vast majority of Irish parents.