Irish mothers have dismissed reports which suggest that Ireland’s low breastfeeding rates may be the result of this country’s strong Catholic heritage.
“My Catholic heritage had no influence whatsoever on deciding to or
not to breastfeed,” one Irish mother who wished to remain anonymous told
She is a stay-at-home mum and carer who breastfed each of her three
children during the 1990s. She felt free to breastfeed while attending
training conferences by NAOMI Billings Ireland during her ten years as a
teacher of this method of natural family planning.
When she went to Castel Gandolfo near Rome for a four-day retreat,
she was given accommodation close to the venue by organisers who were
anxious to facilitate her breastfeeding.
She said that she would never breastfeed in a church during Mass,
“out of respect”, but she said she has never felt excluded from church
activities, and she and the other mothers supported each other fully.
The issue arose when Irish newspapers reported on Catholics’ lower
incidence of breastfeeding as presented in a new international study
published in the BMJ Global Health Journal.
In the study, researchers looked at breastfeeding data and the
percentage of Catholics and Protestants in populations in Western
nations including Ireland, France, the UK, Canada and the United States.
Having factored in data on national income and quality of life, they
found links between religious affiliation and breastfeeding rates in
Some of the key findings were that 46 per cent of women
in the Republic of Ireland have initiated breastfeeding, compared to 64
per cent in Northern Ireland, 75 per cent in the US and 87 per cent in
In the 1970s, Irish rates were at a low of 11 per cent.
Mothers who breastfed told Catholicireland.net that in their own
mothers’ generation in the 1960s it was felt that feeding milk formula
from a bottle was ‘progressive’. There was an attitude that bottle
feeding was ‘posh’ and something that some mothers aspired to.
By the time later generations came to breastfeeding in the 1990s, it
had swung the other way and seems to be continuing in that direction.
The mother told Catholicireland.net that income and lifestyle
choices are by far the biggest factors in deciding whether to breastfeed
or not. If the mother has to work she may feel she cannot breastfeed
or will have to wean before her maternity leave ends.
“Life is so fast. If you choose to breastfeed you are in a different
way of life, you have to slow everything down, it is a natural process.
All new mothers should rest anyhow but to breastfeed you do need to rest
and eat properly and it is a choice you make,” she said.
Mothers who intend to breastfeed today or who are already
breastfeeding – including those who wish to continue breastfeeding after
returning to work – can turn to a range of sources for support.
include supports within the healthcare system and voluntary
organisations run by mothers who have breastfed and who are trained in
offering support at all stages of the breastfeeding relationship between
mother and child.
found consistent negative correlations between Catholicism and
breastfeeding initiation rates,” researchers state in the study
conclusions. “Our results suggest that women living in a country or
region where Catholicism has historically dominated are less likely to
initiate breastfeeding, and that breastfeeding promotion policies should
be adapted to better fit populations’ cultural and religious norms.”
Another mother who breastfed all her children and continued to work
in her profession said that encouragement from health professionals and
strong role models helped her.
She experienced both private and public
hospitals in the late 1980s/early 1990s and believes that in public
hospitals the emphasis was on getting the mother and new baby ready to
go home within three days, so the bottle was often encouraged to speed
However, in the private hospital breastfeeding was encouraged
by the entire team, from consultant to nurse.
Her mother had been helped to breastfeed by an African nun in the
Medical Missionaries of Mary Hospital. She felt her mother was a role
model, as was her sister-in-law, a conservative Catholic.
decision to breastfeed was not curtailed by her Catholic heritage but
rather encouraged by strong role models who were Catholics. Her doctor
at the time was also a Catholic and known for strong pro-life views and
he too encouraged breastfeeding.
“I certainly was not influenced [by my Catholic heritage in the
decision to breastfeed],” she said. “I think it is more a Victorian type
of morality that they [the researchers] are talking about rather than a
During a baptism ceremony in the Sistine Chapel in 2015, Pope Francis
encouraged mothers to breastfeed their babies, saying “You mothers give
your children milk and even now, if they cry because they are hungry,
breastfeed them, don’t worry.”
In its conclusions the report does state it is an “ecological study”,
which means it measures one variable in population/s for an initial
investigation of causal hypothesis.
The researchers conclude: “Qualitative and quantitative studies at
the individual level are needed to confirm and explain our findings.”