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Breastfeeding in Ireland: a Five Year Strategic Action Plan

The current Strategic Action Plan for Breastfeeding reflects the commitment of the Department of Health and Children (DOHC) and the Health Service Executive (HSE) to the implementation of international and national breastfeeding strategies. It builds on the achievements of ‘A National Breastfeeding Policy for Ireland’ (DOHC, 1994).

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International strategies:

National strategies:

Between 1981 and 1991 the national incidence of breastfeeding on leaving hospital remained static at around 32%, and was recognised as very low by international standards (DOH, 1994). This, along with representations from various voluntary and professional groups such as the La Leche League of Ireland (LLL), Cuidiú- The Irish Childbirth Trust (ICT), the WHO/UNICEF Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative (BFHI) and the Irish Nurse’s Organisation led the Department of Health in 1992 to establish a national committee with the brief to develop a national breastfeeding policy. The Policy that ensued (A National Breastfeeding Policy for Ireland, DOHC, 1994) detailed a series of recommendations and targets aimed at improving breastfeeding rates in Ireland. The recommendations in the 1994 Policy largely endorsed and advocated national implementation of many of the evidence-based international breastfeeding initiatives emanating from WHO and UNICEF.

Currently approximately 47% of mothers in Ireland are breastfeeding at discharge from maternity care (NPRS, 2008). Breastfeeding duration rate figures are not currently collected at national level, however, research studies indicate the fall-off in breastfeeding following discharge is worryingly high with less than 10% of infants still breastfeeding at 6 months of age.

A vast scientific literature demonstrates the substantial health, social and economic importance of breastfeeding and increasingly this research is demonstrating a dose response relationship strongly indicating that the health and nutritional advantages can be maximised by longer breastfeeding duration.

Thus, to exploit these health advantages the Health Service Executive, the Department of Health and Children recommends exclusive breastfeeding of infants for the first 6 months, after which mothers are recommended to continue breastfeeding, in combination with suitably nutritious and safe complementary foods until their children are 2 years of age or older.

The aim of the Ministerial-appointed expert group set up to formulate the current Strategic Action Plan was to continue the work begun with the 1994 Policy by drawing up evidence-based goals, objectives, actions and targets that will significantly increase the up-take and duration rates of breastfeeding for families in Ireland. The overarching public health goal for the entire Action Plan is the achievement of optimum health and well-being for babies, their mothers, families and communities.

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