Religion cited as influencing low breastfeeding rates

Ireland’s low breastfeeding rates may be the result of the country’s strong Catholic heritage, a new international study suggests.

Developed countries with higher proportions of Protestants tend to have higher rates of breastfeeding, according to the research published in the BMJ Global Health journal.

Even within countries, including Ireland, breastfeeding rates are higher in areas where the proportion of Catholics is lower, researchers have found.

Ireland has the lowest breastfeeding rates in the world, with barely half of all women having ever tried it, compared to up to 90 per cent in other developed nations. The World Health Organisation recommends women breastfeed their babies exclusively for the first six months and then partially until the child reaches the age of two.

Breastfeeding data

In the study, researchers looked at breastfeeding data and the proportion of Catholics and Protestants in Ireland, France, the UK, Canada and the United States.

After taking into account factors such as national income and quality of life, they found an association between religious affiliation and breastfeeding rates in Western countries. The higher the proportion of Catholics in the five countries, the lower were the breastfeeding rates.

There was less variation within Ireland than in the other countries, though Dublin and Wicklow have the lowest proportions of Catholics and the highest breastfeeding rates in the Republic.

According to the study, 46 per cent of Irish women have initiated breastfeeding, compared to 64 per cent in Northern Ireland, 75 per cent in the US and 87 per cent in Canada. In the 1970s, Irish rates dropped as low as 11 per cent.

Current Irish figures must be viewed in the light of the rates observed in the 1970s, according to lead author Dr Jonathan Bernard of the centre for research in epidemiology at the Sorbonne in Paris.

“According to our findings, the large cultural influence of Roman Catholicism in Ireland may act as an underlying cause that can explain, at least partly, why Ireland reached such a low rate in the 1970s and why since, despite health policies, the rate increase hasn’t been faster relative to other Western countries.”