Almost 50% of Northern Ireland mothers who have given birth since 2012 left hospital without attempting to breastfeed, according to a study.
Children born to mothers living in areas of high social deprivation were the least likely to breastfeed, reaching as low as 13% in some areas, compared to 68% of mothers from more affluent places.
The figures were contained in a report by website Detail Data, which examined the feeding of 97,737 babies in hospitals across all trust areas in Northern Ireland from April 2012 to the end of March 2016.
Medical journal The Lancet recently said UK breastfeeding rates were among the worst in the world. Northern Ireland has the worst rates in the UK.
Factors which may contribute to why a mother decides against breastfeeding her child include her age, medical problems and mental health issues.
The Department of Health has adopted the World Health Organisation’s recommendation that a baby should be exclusively breastfed for the first six months of its life. Despite this, only 7% of children here are breastfed for that length of time.
In a bid to address the atrocious rate in Northern Ireland, the Public Health Agency will launch a major breastfeeding awareness campaign this summer.
The organisation’s regional breastfeeding co-ordinator, Janet Calvert, insisted that more value should be placed on breastfeeding.
“Women stay in hospital on average a much shorter length of time than they did five or six years ago,” she said.
“In many units, there’s only really time for one feed, maybe two.
“The reality is that maternity units can be extremely busy places, and while midwives may try to give you the time you need, it’s just not always possible to do that.
“It’s not just about sorting out the health service, although that is a key part of it. It’s about creating supportive environments for breastfeeding across communities and within families, and shifting any bias, negative attitudes and misconceptions about breastfeeding.
“In Northern Ireland we have to move further along the journey of really valuing breastfeeding.”
Lindsay Robinson, mother to Reuben and wife of DUP MP Gavin Robinson, is mental health charity Inspire’s Ambassador for Maternal Wellbeing. She was among those who did not breastfeed.
She was diagnosed with post-natal depression, but used her experience to help her run the Have You Seen That Girl website.
She said: “When I look back now, I realise I actually had ante-natal depression.
“I just assumed I would breastfeed in the same way that I assumed I would be emotionally and mentally well, which I wasn’t.”
“I felt on one hand shame — ‘‘Why could I not do this? Why do I have to give the baby a bottle?’ And on the other hand, ‘Maybe it’ll make it easier... maybe he will be okay on formula’.
“I brought a little bottle and I will never forget he began to suck and suck, literally chug it down, and I felt, ‘Finally I am doing something right’.”
The report also found that women who had access to a breastfeeding support group found it a positive experience.
Health visitor Helen Sherry, who works for the Larne Parental Support Project, said: “The support group offers a friendly environment where they can come and breastfeed in comfort.
“We try to nurture the mothers so they in turn can look after the babies that they are feeding.
“They chat to me and the other mothers and go out of the group to different people.”