Breastfeeding is heavily promoted, researched and scrutinised behaviour in contemporary British society. In recent years considerable attention has been paid to increasing breastfeeding initiation and duration rates through a series of health awareness campaigns and related policy initiatives. However, the number of women initiating and maintaining breastfeeding for the recommended six months remain below the government’s and the WHO’s targets.Infant feeding operates as a signal issue, boxing mothers into different parenting camps.
There also seems to be a mismatch between the infant feeding goal of women which is a contented, thriving baby whereas many women perceive the goal of health professionals to be the continuation of breastfeeding. This can lead to dissatisfaction with communication which is often seen as ‘breastfeeding’ centred rather than ‘woman’ centred.In the UK there is little information available from health professionals around weaning. The advice is often generic and focuses on the importance of establishing healthy eating habits to avoid childhood obesity.
There were often discussions around what was deemed to be supportive or trustworthy advice. Mothers commonly received advice from health visitors and midwives – although this advice was often felt to be unsupportive or not enough, in particular, around the introduction of complementary foods.
Being alert to risks and avoiding perceived risks also played into the discourse around constructing identities as good mothers. Participants often stated that they were aware of risks but used these to construct and justify their own narrative around infant feeding.Mothers also often focused on future risks to their children’s health (particularly around the introduction of complementary foods) rather than immediate risks.
Mothers felt the need to justify their decisions if they felt these ran counter to what society accepts as the model of a good mother.
Mothers appeal to the language of risks and call on higher authorities to show that their decisions were taken with the baby’s interest at heart, rather than for more ‘selfish’ reasons, such as sleeping through the night.
However, mothers who breastfed and therefore would be regarded as good mothers also felt they needed to do identity work and needed to offer an explanatory framework when they felt their behaviours and choices did not conform to societal norms, e.g. Longer term breastfeeding. These mothers also used the same language of risk to justify their decisions.
It was felt to be important to give children a ‘varied’ diet which included different flavours as this could prevent children from becoming fussy eaters in the future.Junk food was also seen as threat to children’s future health.
Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences<br />Feeding Baby: Pilot interviews with new mothers about infant feeding<br />Gillian Hawkes and Angela Cassidy <br />
Introduction<br />Infant feeding, in particular breastfeeding, is one of the most debated (and contested) areas of maternal and neonatal health care.<br />Much research and many public health campaigns have focused on increasing breastfeeding initiation and duration rates. Despite this rates in the UK remain below the government’s and WHO’s targets.<br />Infant feeding operates as a ‘signal’ issue: it determines philosophies of parenting and one’s capacities as a mother.<br />
Infant feeding, advice and expertise<br />Mothers have been shown to be sensitive and vigilant to criticism in their interactions with health professionals.<br />Interactions between parents and health professionals have been described as ‘encounters ... drenched with implicit moral judgements, claims and obligations (Plumridge et al., 2008)<br />Resistance to public health messages is common and individuals have adapted and transformed ‘advice’ to fit their own concept of what was appropriate for them (Lupton and Chapman, 1995)<br />There has been a focus on early infant feeding but less so on weaning. The messages that are given out often focus on developing healthy eating habits to avoid childhood obesity.<br />
Research Questions<br />Main research question: <br />How do parents and health care professionals negotiate and manage information and advice about infant feeding during their baby’s first year?<br /><ul><li>The interviews sought to elucidate how parents handled advice, where they received advice from and how they negotiated the relationships with health care professionals, particularly when things did not go to plan. </li></li></ul><li>Methodology<br />Fifteen mothers were recruited purposively. The parents were from a diverse range of backgrounds, including British, Spanish and French as well as a wide range of ages. All the participants were degree-educated. The babies ranged in age from six months to two years at the time of interview. Seven were first-time mothers. The mothers were mostly based in East Anglia and the South-East of England, although four were originally from Spain and four were from France.<br />Semi-structured interviews were conducted between May and August 2009. The interviews lasted between 60 and 90 minutes each.<br />The interviews were taped and transcribed verbatim. <br />The transcripts were analysed using a grounded theory approach.<br />
Results<br />Advice<br /> Mothers frequently spoke about the sources of advice they accessed and how the different sources of advice made them feel.<br />I think it depends a lot on which person you talk to and which health visitor you talk to because I talked to a couple of them and they said it was normal and then the third one talked to she suggested that I switch formulas and there was nothing wrong with switching formulas. (Mother, first child, age 32)<br />
Results<br />Advice (cont)<br /> Mothers felt that they were expected to find out about formula feeding and weaning for themselves, as there was a lack of ‘official’ advice available. This often left mothers feeling anxious and confused.<br />It would have been useful to know when to increase the dose because even though the packet says well it could be between 4 and 6 kilos ... the health visitors don’t really tend to give you – if I wanted I would look on the internet ... and we couldn’t find anything on the internet. (Mother, first child, age 28)<br />
Results<br />Advice (cont)<br /> Mothers also commented on the differences between the amount of support and advice available to them when starting breastfeeding compared to the advice available to them with regards to weaning.<br />It was very poor ... I remembered that I asked them in the class and in the end they always mentioned ‘the book’. They replied but with little information. I was not happy with the information you receive. I asked my sisters, family, friends. It’s the opposite with breastfeeding in this case I was more than happy. (Mother, two children, age 39)<br />
Results<br />Advice (cont)<br /> However, mothers who had breastfed felt positive about the advice and support that they received from midwives and health visitors.<br />Since the moment she was born in hospital, I spent one night because the baby didn’t eat well or take the breast properly, they helped a lot. After two weeks, the midwife came at home to make sure that the baby grows correctly, she receives enough milk. (Mother, two children, age 39)<br />
Results<br />Advice (cont)<br /> Mothers turned to other mothers for advice and support and felt these to be positive experiences. Family members, such as sisters and mothers, were a trusted source of advice. There was little fear of being judged or found wanting by asking peers and family for advice and help.<br />When I was pregnant I looked for a lot on the internet. I asked the midwife and my sisters who live in Spain. They have had children, how they are doing things, if they eat this or that. At the beginning when the baby was born my sister came here and I think if it hadn’t been for her help and her, I would have given up. It [breastfeeding] was very painful. (Mother, one child, age 39)<br />
Results<br />Advice (cont)<br /> Conflicting advice often left mothers feeling confused but it also made them question the trustworthiness of ‘official’ advice and this led some mothers to rely on ‘common sense’ and trust their own instincts. This was particularly the case for mothers with roots in either France of Spain, as they could see that advice shifts between different countries. <br />I’m not sure really, I mean, I suppose it is difficult because every baby is different so they would have to give very general advice and then you just follow your own instincts I suppose and follow what your baby wants and needs. So I understand maybe it is difficult for health visitors to say well ‘this is how it should be done’, you know, this is the best way because it might not work for your baby. (Mother, first child, 31)<br />
Results<br />Advice (cont)<br /> One of the major differences in the interviews is that mothers who struggled to breastfeed and changed to formula feeding (or mothers who choose to formula feed from the outset) were much more negative about the advice and support from health professionals, compared to mothers who had breastfed for longer.<br />I think it is a cultural thing, in England they want people to breastfeed as much as they can which is probably a good idea, but they don’t really let you discuss the other options so, it is a bit one sided really ... surely it is more what works for you but some [midwives] have a Gestapo kind of approach to it. (Mother, one child, 33)<br />
Results<br />Risk perceptions <br />Ideas of risk and risk perceptions (and the avoidance or minimisation of risks) was a common theme. There was a general attitude of ‘better safe than sorry’, particularly if mothers felt confused or unsure about what the right course of action was.<br />I knew maybe I could have a glass of wine here and there but I just decided not to have any or, you know, maybe you are allowed to have meat rare if you prefer but I decided not to. (Mother, first child, 36)<br /> ... if there is any risk then what’s the point and you know, I can do without prawns for nine months, it’s no problem, so I just didn’t, I didn’t feel comfortable eating it if there was any risk. (Mother, first child, age 34)<br />
Results<br />Risk perceptions (cont)<br />Risk was commonly cited in relation to breastfeeding, both reasons to breastfeed but also reasons no to. The language of risk was turned on its head and used as a reason to abandon breastfeeding, or not attempt it at all. This kind of stance was usually accompanied with a disclaimer where mothers state that they knew the benefits of breastfeeding (and the risks of not doing so).<br />When you say this to midwives that you are exhausted and you are trying and nothing is happening well, they tell you that you have to try harder, they don’t say ‘OK, that’s enough, you know, you have done your best and to stop’. You will get post-natal depression if you carry on, because you can, you know. (Mother, first child, 34)<br />
Results<br />Risk perceptions (cont)<br />Some comments around risk were also linked to notions of lay epidemiology. Babies were often characterised as weak and, particularly in relation to food, in need of special care. Mothers often mentioned potential risks to future health and to future eating habits.<br />I obviously don’t give him more than two or three strong things because his digestive system has to get used to new things and new flavours ... I’m not sure, the taste is more simple, bland, because it is for younger babies and not so strong as the other ones and possibly easier on the digestive system. (Mother, first child, age 32) <br />
Results<br />Identity work<br />The morality attached to breastfeeding (and natural birth) are pervasive enough that mothers felt that their status as ‘good’ mothers was threatened.<br />Telling a new mum, well, breastfeed obviously is the best way but formula, if you have any problem, formula is OK, and, you know, formula nowadays, they have everything that your child needs, obviously your own milk will give him extra but just to say, it is OK and just to make the transition easy ... with other mums I have been talking is traumatic because everything is considered wrong for your baby. (Mother, first child, age 32)<br />
Results<br />Identity work (cont)<br />It would seem that it isn’t just breastfeeding which has become moralised but also when to wean. Mothers felt the need to justify their decisions if they had weaned before the recommended six months. <br />I talked to a health visitor and just to check it was OK to start weaning so soon because obviously he was very hungry and they said yes, you know, you can start weaning after 19 weeks if your baby’s weight is big enough and he is obviously hungry and the milk is not enough any more, so yeah, I would check with her. (Mother, two children, age 27)<br />
Results<br />Identity work (cont)<br />Mothers felt, in some cases, quite hostile towards midwives and health visitors with regards to the perceived support of breastfeeding mothers.<br />Actually, the NHS here is very pro-breastfeeding so you are bombarded with information about breastfeeding and you should breastfeed and it is a bit too much pressure really on new mums to have to go and breastfeed. I think they are, I wouldn’t say wrong, but you know, no one encouraged you to say well, you know, if you have any problems don’t worry and just bottle feed, they pushed you to breastfeed no matter what. (Mother, two children, age 26)<br />
Results<br />Healthy eating<br />The concepts of ‘natural’ and ‘homemade’ were frequently mentioned in relation to providing babies with a healthy diet. These concepts were contrasted against ‘processed’ and ‘junk’ food which mothers felt should be avoided for as long as possible. This was also tied up with notions of class and being a good mother.<br />If it has anything other than natural ingredients in it, I won’t give it to her at this stage ... because I can’t see the point of giving her sugar if she doesn’t need it ... she needs vitamins, she needs iron and things like that, she doesn’t need sugar. (Mother, first child, age 40) <br /> In [town] I see loads of people, you know the sort, queuing up with their children at McDonalds and I look at it and say there is no way I am taking her to McDonalds ... (Mother, first child, age 34)<br />
Discussion<br />Advice is clearly multi-facetted.<br />Parents received (rather than sought) advice from the NHS, through midwives and health visitors, and mostly this advice was viewed as unhelpful or inadequate.<br />Mothers sought advice from friends and family, and from books or the internet. These were commonly seen as trusted sources of advice.<br /><ul><li>Mothers were often left feeling confused and anxious at the lack of ‘official’ advice and were often left feeling angry and upset when ‘official’ advice did not sanction or support their decisions. This was particularly the case where mothers had had difficulties breastfeeding.
Conflicting advice was particularly problematic:</li></ul>Some mothers were left feeling anxious and confused about what the right thing to do was<br />Others felt emboldened by this lack of ‘official’ consensus and relied on their own common sense and gut instincts<br /><ul><li>Mothers’ relationships with health professionals shifted over time. The balance of expertise tipped in favour of the mothers as their babies grew older.</li></li></ul><li>Conclusions<br /><ul><li>Mothers’ relationships with health professionals shifted over time. The balance of expertise tipped in favour of the mothers as their babies grew older.
Mothers felt enormous societal pressures to be perceived to be ‘good’ mothers.</li></ul>Mothers who did not, as they perceived it, conform to society norms with regards to infant feeding or parenting, felt the need to justify their decisions, and to underline their status as ‘good’ mothers.<br />The language of risk was commonly used, both to underline their status as ‘good’ mothers and to justify the decisions.<br />Health risks, particularly related to healthy eating, was something mothers worried about and tried to minimise. Concepts of ‘natural’ and ‘homemade’, as opposed to ‘junk’ food were often talked about.<br />Mothers felt a huge pressure to ‘get it right’ as there seemed to be so much riding on their decisions (future health, intelligence etc) and so much which could go wrong (fussy eating, childhood obesity etc)<br />Many mothers were very conscious of risks and adopted a ‘better safe than sorry’ approach. <br />Limitations: this was a pilot study so a small, purposive sample, but a larger study is planned to look more closely at how parents (not just mothers) use advice, both in real life but also virtually through online groups, such as Mumsnet.<br />