Pregnancy is a time when women are expected to make changes to their health in order to benefit their unborn child. The list of “risky behaviours” has increased significantly over the past 50 years, and expectant mothers are now advised to cut out alcohol, cigarettes and a range of foods, among other things. After their baby is born, women are reminded of the superiority of breast milk over formula – and can feel guilty whichever they choose.
However, we have found that women aren’t left alone in their pre and postnatal health endeavours: friends, family and even strangers are all also policing their behaviour, focusing on anything thought to be risky to the baby’s health.
For our recently published study, we spoke to six mothers, with babies aged two years and under, and their own mothers (the grandmothers) to tell us their experiences of infant feeding. Most reported that as soon as they were pregnant, they were asked about how they were going to be feeding their baby by acquaintances, friends and family. Everybody who asked appeared to have an opinion on what the “right” choice should be.
Though some questioners acted with good intentions, some of the mums did report more intrusive and judgemental experiences. One mother explained that while pregnant she went for an afternoon tea with her mum. The waiter refused to serve them the full tea service, and instead provided them with cheese and pickle sandwiches. The waiter did not ask the expectant mum if there was anything that she was not “allowed” to eat by her health visitor, or anything she might be choosing to avoid, but instead spoke to the chef and decided what would be best to protect the foetus.
This ever present low level surveillance and policing continued when the babies were born too, this time focusing on feeding. In general, the mothers said that pressure from health professionals was less than from other sources.
Unhelpful and sometimes incorrect feeding advice came from a broad range of sources. We heard that friends would push women to feed their babies differently, and eventually the mums withdrew from these friendships to stop the flow of advice. Family and friends also judged women for how they fed their baby, criticising for breastfeeding frequently (a normal behaviour in young babies) and judging when the mum went out and drank alcohol while breastfeeding – regardless of any precautions she had taken to prioritise her baby’s health.
Most surprisingly, pressure continued to come from strangers. Mothers were questioned about what milk was being fed to babies from bottles in public. A stigma also existed around the preparation of formula: one mum reported hiding the powder under the table so as not to be seen.
Two of our respondents continued to breastfeed beyond the early weeks, but neither felt fully free in doing so. One said that she aimed to take expressed breast milk with her whenever she went out, as she felt that feeding directly from the breast may be misconstrued as a sexual act. She described that it was as if people were watching her pole dance. When it was not possible to use expressed breastmilk, the mother used a large shawl to cover the baby and her torso. The second mother did not feel the same need to cover her baby with a shawl, but nonetheless had attempted to cover as much of her own body as possible when feeding.
Speaking to these mother’s own mothers, we found that their experience was quite different from their daughters. The grandmothers didn’t have the questions and pressures that their daughters had, and felt that this had made motherhood a less challenging time for them.
Policing women’s bodies
When women are subjected to this kind of regulation, it can have negative impacts on their self-esteem and make them behave in ways that are overly self-aware and self-conscious. This has a particular impact on how they choose to feed their babies, and also on new mothers’ feelings about going outside their home.
If new mothers are to be able to leave the house and breastfeed their babies, it is important that they feel able to do so in public. In the UK, breastfeeding mothers are protected by the Equality Act 2010, which insists that businesses facilitate breastfeeding, allow women to breastfeed on their premises, and even protect them from other customers’ requests that they stop. Though it may not be currently widely enforced, it becomes a totally useless protection if women feel that they will be subjected to intrusive comments and suggestions, and so will choose not to breastfeed away from home.
New motherhood is exhausting and finding the time to express breastmilk to use in public adds a further time-consuming task to their days. As such, the policing of new mother’s behaviour in public is likely to contribute to the UK’s low rates of breastfeeding.
The best advice to take is that if you see a woman you don’t know, who is pregnant or has a baby with her, think carefully before asking questions about infant feeding. Your enquiries could be making a difficult situation worse.
Aimee Grant receives funding from the National Institute for Health Research, the Wellcome Trust ISSF Public Health Scheme and the Welsh Crucible Small Grant Scheme. She has also undertaken paid consultancy for Public Health Wales NHS Trust, where she previously held the role of Senior Health Promotion Practitioner. She is affiliated with the Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) Wales Cymru research committee, where she previously held the role of Research and Policy Officer.