Irish and German mothers vary on breastfeeding

Published in Jan-Feb 2011 issue of Science Spin

The story begins with a male caller phoning into the Ray Darcy show on Today FM to describe his disgust at having seeing a mother breast feeding in Dundrum Shopping Centre. Then one of the girls at Presentation Secondary School, Thurles, spoke of her father’s discomfort at seeing a woman breast feeding.

That did it, and a group of students at Presentation Thurles decided to find out exactly what Irish attitudes were to breast feeding compared to another country. The country they decided to compare with was Germany, by virtue of the fact that the school had long standing connections with a school in Rosenheim, Bavaria.

The plan was to conduct a survey of attitudes among Irish mothers and German mothers to the ‘emotive’ issue of breast feeding and the results were fascinating.

In general terms it appears that German women are more enthusiastic for breast feeding with more than 90 per cent of women surveyed in Rosenheim adhering to World Health Organisation guidelines to breast feed for the first six months. However, this doesn’t apparently tell the whole story as many German women also said that the breast fed, despite the fact that they didn’t particularly like it. The reason, it seems, is a strong desire to do the right thing, and follow the rules.

As we know in Ireland, people are not as bothered by rules, and the issue for women here was a sense of guilt when a decision was made to bottle feed.

The survey, conducted among 50 Irish and 50 German women was conducted by  students Alison Kelly, Sarah Jane O’Riordan, and Orlaith Quigley. The survey was done with the guidance of their teacher Emma Kavanagh. [The three students and their teacher, Emma, are pictured here above]

The aims of the survey were to determine the percentage of mothers that initiated breastfeeding; the average length of time breastfeeding was continued; the emotional, social and physical difficulties faced by breastfeeding mothers; how mothers were supported, and by whom. Clear differences emerged.

The survey determined that 100 per cent of the German women had initiated breast feeding with at least one child, while 56.25% of Irish women had done so. The survey found that, for the first child, 84 per cent of Irish mothers did not feed beyond three months. The mothers continued longer with breastfeeding for subsequent children, with 70 per cent not feeding their second child past three months, and 56 per cent deciding not to feed their third child past three months.

The results that came back from the students’ survey correlated closely with the Irish and German national statistics on breast feeding. A 2009 report in Ireland found that 47 per cent of women tried breast feeding to begin with, but that the figure had fallen to 28 per cent after four weeks. In Germany, meanwhile, the statistics indicate that 90 per cent start breast feeding and are still doing it six months later.  That is despite the fact that many German mothers don’t like it.

In Ireland it appears there are huge pressures on women to breast feed, and that they are made to feel guilty when they decide to bottle feed instead. Then, for those mothers that do breast feed in public they are often met with open hostility.