Up to 200 breastfeeding mothers to join challenge

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Image caption,
Only 7% of children in Northern Ireland are breastfed past the age of six months

Up to 200 mothers across Northern Ireland are hoping to set a new record for breastfeeding.

They will be feeding their children together as part of the Global Big Latch On.

The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health says the UK has one of the lowest rates of the practice in Europe.

Just a third of babies are receiving breast milk at the age of six months, it says. Northern Ireland has the lowest rate of breastfeeding in the UK and one of the lowest in Europe.

Dr Jennifer Hanratty, a nursing mother herself, wants to change that and offer women support to make breastfeeding babies the norm.

"Northern Ireland has one of the lowest rates in the UK, the UK has the lowest rate in the whole world. We are at the bottom of the table," she said.

"We live in a bottle feeding culture so we need to move to see breastfeeding as normal. The focus of the festival is to bring the community together, generate support and normalise breastfeeding.

"Breast is not best, it's biologically normal and it needs to become socially and culturally normal again and just because breastfeeding is natural doesn't mean it is easy.

"Mum and baby need to learn together and family and wider society need to support and protect them."

Dr Hanratty said women in Northern Ireland face a lot of pressure and a certain amount of stigma. She said many stopped breastfeeding before they really wanted to.

Image source, Aliya Shagieva
Image caption,
A photo of the Kyrgyz president's daughter feeding her baby sparked a debate about breastfeeding last week

"In other cultures, it is normal for women to be taken care of after a baby is born. We need cultural changes to happen. This is about supporting all women in their choices."

Despite the NHS and World Health Organisation recommending that children should be breastfed until the age of two, only 7% of children in Northern Ireland are breastfed past the age of six months.

Breastival co-host Jennie Wallace said: "Motherhood can be a lonely place, and new mums especially can be left feeling a bit helpless without proper support. Many turn to online communities, where there is a wealth of great discussion and sharing of stories.

"We really want to bring these communities together in real life to laugh, cry, share and build support networks."

Belfast's Lord Mayor Nuala McAllister is lending her support.

"Belfast City Council has always been extremely supportive of mothers who choose to breastfeed," she said.

"In 2014, we signed up for the Public Health Agency's 'Breastfeeding Welcome Here' scheme, which aims to increase the number of premises which welcome breastfeeding mums.

Image caption,
Former health minister Michelle O'Neill promised legislation to protect breastfeeding mothers

"Thirty-six of our buildings, including the City Hall, are signed up to the initiative, helping mums to feel more comfortable doing something in public which should actually be seen as perfectly normal. "

More than 500 people have signed up for Breastival and there is a waiting list.

But people can come along to the Global Big Latch On which starts at 10:30 BST on Saturday.

In January, the then health minister Michelle O'Neill promised to bring forward legislation as soon as possible to protect mothers who breastfeed in public.

This was shortly before the collapse of Northern Ireland's power-sharing executive.

In the UK, only 34% of babies were receiving some breast milk at six months, compared with 49% in the US and 71% in Norway, according to medical journal The Lancet. At a year, this figure fell to 0.5%.

The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health points to Unicef research that concludes even moderate increases in breastfeeding could save the NHS up to £40m a year through fewer GP consultations and hospital admissions.

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