A comment on Ireland’s attitude towards breastfeeding, by Éilís Walsh.

When you see the word “breast” what do you think of? Many of you may think, half naked woman on a magazine cover. You could almost be forgiven for that. Men and women alike will think of breasts in a sexual way, almost guaranteed. But if you really think about it, that’s crazy.


Breasts have one main function and that is to provide nourishment to infants. This is why women have a pair of breasts on their body. Not to give men pleasure, to sell magazines and not even to advertise the newest style of swimwear. Breasts are supposed to fill with milk (not even any old milk, milk that contains precious nutrients you won’t find in milk formulas), and aid in the rearing of children.


And yet breasts have become the most sexualised portion of a person’s body.


I have asked so many boys and even girls why they think breasts get the attention they do.

Some guys have struggled to articulate the exact appeal, but it’s usually something along the lines of “they look good”, or “it’s nice to touch them”. It’s a well-known fact that men like to, to quote a common phrase, “cop a feel”. Girls understand the sexual appeal of breasts but there is one description of breasts that is commonly used and that is, breasts are nothing but “two lumps of fat”. If you search a definition of breasts you’ll read that they are “either of the two soft, protruding organs on the upper front of a woman's body which secrete milk after childbirth”. There is nothing remotely sexual about that. Yet today in the 21st century women in Ireland and abroad experience prejudice from members of the public for breastfeeding their children in the public eye.


Based on international figures about 55% of Irish women breastfeed their children. This is remarkably low compared to other countries. In 2015 the World Health Organization (WHO), completed a study of the rates of breastfeeding in every country. Results showed that the country with the highest rate of breastfeeding was Rwanda, at 85%.


On the 4th of October 2016, Sabina Higgins wife of President Michael D Higgins, invited 200 mothers and babies to Áras an Uachtaráin for a breastfeeding event. The initiative was named Latched On, its aim being to raise awareness of the benefits of breastfeeding your child for the first six months of their lives and to attempt to raise the low rate of breastfeeding in Ireland. The First Lady spoke passionately about the vital role breastfeeding has on the health of Ireland’s future generations and also noted its benefit to those in developing countries.


Reasons for not breastfeeding range from being unable to produce milk, the pain is too much, the act being inconveniencing – and a lot of mothers make the point that they are made uncomfortable by members of the public.


Actress Mila Kunis has been a huge advocate for the desexualising of breastfeeding in public. She stated that during her daughter Wyatt’s first six months she would breastfeed her child everywhere, “a restaurant, in the subway, in the park, at airports and in planes”


Kunis noted that people would look at her “in a shameful way”. Her and husband Ashton Kutcher mutually agreed that public breastfeeding is “so not a sexual act”.


Videos have gone viral on the internet of members of the public (mostly male it’s important to add), angrily chastising women for public breastfeeding. A notable video being one of a woman in Target, a retail store in the US, where she was named “a whore” by a male customer, who called the act of breastfeeding “fucking disgusting”.


But where does this feeling of discomfort come from? You can’t deny it’s because breasts are solely looked upon as a source of sexual pleasure. So even the act of raising your top to feed your hungry child is seen as indecent. However, this is not a fault on the woman’s part. It is society’s for ingraining the idea of breasts as sexual objects into the mind-sets of young men.


Picture a cow feeding its calf? A horse feeding a foal. These acts are not seen as sexual. These are mammals, just like us feeding their young. For me it’s hard to comprehend why the nourishing of a human child is seen as a sexual act. Perhaps it’s because of my upbringing or perhaps it’s because I can detach myself from the idea of breasts only as sexual objects.


If you see a woman breastfeeding in public you might at first be a little surprised, if you’re not used to seeing it. If you have any sense, you’ll carry on with your business. Do not do anything to make this woman feel uncomfortable because chances are, she’s feeling quite vulnerable anyway.


I really am saying, next time you see a woman breastfeeding, try not to stare. It might look unusual, you might even feel uncomfortable, but when it boils down to the nitty gritty of it, it’s just, natural.