Breastfeeding rates climb 5% but still lag behind rest of the UK
Breastfeeding uptake in Northern Ireland is increasing, but the gap between here and the Republic is widening, according to a study.
Figures from the Institute of Public Health in Ireland (IPH) showed we have the lowest rate of breastfeeding in the UK, with local women also the least likely to breastfeed in public.
In 2015 45% of infants here were receiving breast milk at discharge from hospital - up 5% over the last decade, compared to a 9% rise in the Republic during the same period, from 49% to 58%.
Despite this, the uptake rate in the province tailed off rapidly after hospital discharge, with only 35% still breastfeeding at the time of the first health visitor visit, followed by 27% at six weeks. This continued to drop to 21% at three months, 13% at six months and 7% at 12 months.
IPH development officer Dr Joanna Purdy said: "Rates of starting breastfeeding have increased over the island of Ireland in the last 10 years, although Northern Ireland was starting from a lower point than the Republic and the gap between North and South is widening.
"However, across the island there is a steep decline in breastfeeding in the early weeks after birth."
Research indicates that more than 22,000 children's lives could be saved worldwide each year and 20,000 breast cancer deaths could be prevented if breastfeeding maintenance increased.
Dr Purdy said Northern Ireland society was "slowly becoming more welcoming and appreciative of breastfeeding but still has a long way to go".
The report showed that women from more affluent areas were twice as likely to breastfeed as those from the most deprived areas, and the uptake of breastfeeding among younger mothers was persistently low.
After meeting with the Department of Health and Public Health Agency representatives, Sinn Fein MP Michelle Gildernew renewed calls for the introduction of breastfeeding laws.
"Ireland as a whole has one of the lowest rates of breastfeeding in Europe and this must change," she said.
"Effective public awareness campaigns and targeted legislation are two actions that need to be progressed to encourage women to breastfeed and, more importantly, to provide support when they choose to do so."