Liverpool: New research conducted by the University of Liverpool shows that mothers can experience negative emotions such as guilt, stigma and the need to defend their feeding choices regardless of how they feed their baby. Researchers from the Liverpool Infant Feeding Group (LIFe) in the University’s Institute of Psychology, Health and Society, led by Dr Jo Harrold, conducted a series of studies to identify the emotional and practical experiences of mothers who exclusively breast feed, exclusively formula feed, or use a combination of both.
The studies, which have been published in the Journal of Maternal and Child Nutrition,
include the experiences of more than 1600 mothers with infants up to 26
weeks-of-age. All of the mothers were asked to fill out an online
survey provide answers that reflected both their emotional and practical
experiences of infant feeding.
To identify differences in experiences, they were also asked how they
currently fed their baby and how they planned to feed their baby during
Stigmatized and feeling guilty
In the overall sample of formula feeding mothers 67% reported feeling
guilty, 68% felt stigmatized, and 76% felt the need to defend their
feeding choice. Mothers who initiated exclusive breastfeeding but
stopped and mothers who intended to exclusively breastfeed during
pregnancy were at a much higher risk of experiencing guilt.
For breastfeeding mothers, negative emotional experiences did not
occur as frequently but were still present, particularly for those who
supplemented breastfeeding with formula. Interestingly, family members
and breastfeeding in public appeared to be the primary external source
of these emotions. Returning to work was also a common concern raised by
mothers who were exclusively breastfeeding.
Further analysis of the responses from both breastfeeding and formula
feeding women revealed that guilt and dissatisfaction was directly
associated with how they chose to feed their babies; these emotional
experiences were far more common in those supplementing or substituting
One of the study researchers Sophia Komninou, said: “Women who
breastfeed feel stressed about neglecting the rest of the family and
other obligations, whereas women who do not breastfeed feel a sense of
guilt about feeding their child something sub-optimal. They also feel
shame about having to explain to others why they are not breastfeeding
which leads to them feeling like they are failing to achieve the
socially constructed status of the ‘good mother’.
“The study demonstrates a link between current breastfeeding promotion strategies and the emotional state of mothers.”
Fellow researcher Victoria Fallon adds: “The ‘breast is best’ message
has, in many cases, done more harm than good and we need to be very
careful of the use of words in future breastfeeding promotion campaigns.
“In the UK, less than 1% of mothers exclusively breastfeed to the
recommended six months. We need social reform to fully support and
protect those mothers who do breastfeed, and a different approach to
promotion to minimise negative emotions among the majority who don’t.”
“It is crucial that future recommendations recognize the challenges
that exclusive breast feeding to six months brings and provide a more
balanced and realistic target for mothers.”
The full studies, entitled ‘The emotional and practical experiences of formula-feeding mothers’ and ‘Differences in the emotional and practical experiences of exclusively breastfeeding and combination feeding mothers‘ can be found here and here.