Shame if you do, Shame if you don’t: Women’s experiences of infant feeding

18 September 2014

Chris Theobald

Pioneering research highlights negative emotions.

Pioneering research highlights negative emotions

Whether it’s breast or bottle, pioneering research at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) has uncovered a range of negative emotions experienced by women who choose to breastfeed as well as those who don’t.

UCLan’s Dr Gill Thomson, a Senior Research Fellow within the Maternal and Infant Nutrition and Nurture Unit (MAINN), led the research alongside research colleagues Dr Katherine Ebisch-Burton at the Georg Eckert Institute for International Textbook Research, Germany and Dr Renée Flacking, Dalarna University in Sweden.

Published in the Journal of Maternal & Child Nutrition and entitled: Shame if you do, Shame if you don’t: Women’s experiences of infant feeding, the paper highlights emotions such as guilt and blame which are frequently reported by non-breastfeeding mothers, as well as the fear and humiliation experienced by those who do when feeding in a public context.

In total 63 women with varied infant feeding experiences took part in either a focus group or an individual semi-structured interview to explore their experiences, opinions and perceptions of infant feeding.

“In high breastfeeding countries, breastfeeding is generally perceived to be the norm”.

The research was undertaken as part of an evaluation study to help inform the implementation of the UNICEF UK Baby Friendly Initiative (BFI) Community Award within two primary (community-based) care trusts in North West England.

Three key themes emerged from the work which illustrate how shame is experienced and internalised, these being: ‘exposure of women’s bodies and infant feeding methods’, ‘undermining and insufficient support’ and ‘perceptions of inadequate mothering’.

Commenting on the research Dr Thomson said: “The findings of this paper highlight how breastfeeding and non-breastfeeding women may experience judgement and condemnation in interactions with health professionals as well as within community contexts, leading to feelings of failure, inadequacy and isolation.

“Women need to be properly prepared for different breastfeeding experiences both antenatally and postnatally. They need appropriate, woman-centred support to be proactively provided by health professional and/or peer supporters and for targeted efforts to address cultural biases that work against breastfeeding.

“In high breastfeeding countries, breastfeeding is generally perceived to be the norm. We know that women being brought up in breastfeeding families and knowing others who have breastfed makes a positive impact on women's decisions, motivations and ability to self-feed.

“Some areas in the UK have high formula feeding rates - and whilst (as argued in our paper) all women need context-related support to mitigate against shame - increases in breastfeeding are being addressed through sensitive woman-centred preparation and support in hospital and community settings, such as through the Baby Friendly Initiative.”

A copy of the full research paper can be accessed here: