Posted Thursday 11th November 2021
PhD Researcher, Ulster University
Earlier this year I was involved in analysing the breastfeeding data from the 2019 Northern Ireland life and times survey (NILT). There were a number of key messages, however, one in particular stuck out for me. There seemed to be a large proportion of NILT respondents who lacked knowledge on the health benefits with the number of ‘don’t know’ responses for each question ranging from 47% - 63%.
Research from a UK wide sample looking at what women want from breastfeeding education found that a high proportion (94.8%) stated that breastfeeding promotion tackled the benefits of breastfeeding. The women also described how promotions should be aimed at family and the wider community. Notably, the NILT data demonstrated that a high number of don’t know responses came from males. Important to note is that 320 out of the total sample 564 of males were aged between 18 -54 and so potentially could have been supporting women to breastfeed or could be supporting women in the future. Whilst the knowledge of the health benefits alone is not enough to increase breastfeeding rates, it does raise the question of who promotional campaigns are aimed at. Does the lack of knowledge of the benefits of breastfeeding of the wider community have an impact on their likelihood to support women to breastfeed?
Finally, my last question is whether it is time we made breastfeeding education compulsory within our school curriculum? In the Young Life and Times survey 16-year-old respondents were asked whether young people should learn about breastfeeding in secondary school and a whopping 72% were in favour. With our reproductive, respiratory and digestive systems, to name a few, being taught in school it makes me wonder why the anatomy and function of breasts is not considered of particular importance when it has historically been necessary for human survival? Is it because today’s society is still largely patriarchal, and breasts and breastfeeding is considered a woman’s issue? Research published in 2015 found a theoretically based behavioural intervention in post primary schools in Northern Ireland increased female’s intention to breastfeed as well as having a significant impact on their attitudes and subjective norms. Whilst the intervention didn’t elicit the same effects for males it was found to have a significant impact on the male’s knowledge. The authors concluded that this provided evidence to support the need for education in schools.
Today’s youth are tomorrow’s parents. We need to invest to help normalise and educate young people on breastfeeding for the benefit of future families. Additionally, to fully support women and families to breastfeed a multi-level approach should be adopted to ensure that those women who do go on to breastfeed are supported to continue for as long as they choose.