Skip to main navigationSkip to main content
The University of Southampton
PhilosophyPart of Humanities

Infant feeding: Combating guilt and shame

Professor Fiona Woollard’s research has significantly helped in combating negative feelings about infant feeding decisions that can have serious effects on the wellbeing of vulnerable new mothers and their infants. Her findings have reached health professionals, infant feeding support volunteers and the public through interactive online resources, training, workshops and media engagement.

Research challenge

Women with children

Existing sociological research shows that formula feeding is strongly associated with guilt and shame. At the same time, women who want to breastfeed face shame, particularly surrounding breastfeeding in public. This can have extremely negative effects on the autonomy and well-being of sometimes-vulnerable mothers and their infants.

Woollard’s research shows that this guilt and shame is unwarranted, and reveals misunderstandings that implicitly influence the way we think about, talk about, and treat, mothers. She explains:

  1. how these misunderstandings contribute to unwarranted guilt and shame;
  2. why these feelings persist despite policy changes intended to support all parents in their infant feeding decisions and despite the good intentions of many health workers, and
  3. how judgement surrounding the use of infant formula hinders breastfeeding support.

Online engagement: Feeling Good About How We Feed Our Babies

Based on her research, Woollard led the development of the Feeling Good About How We Feed Our Babies website in collaboration with Heather Tricky (University of Cardiff / National Childbirth Trust), Phyll Buchanan (Breastfeeding Network) and Laura Dennison and Marta Glowacka (University of Southampton).

The aim of the site is to tackle common, unhelpful ways of talking and thinking about parents’ choices about how they feed their babies. It is designed to help practitioners, lactation consultants, midwives, health visitors and mothers explore feelings surrounding infant feeding.

The website was launched at Westminster in 2019 at the invitation of Alison Thewliss MP, as part of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Infant Feeding and Inequality.

The website attracts around 1000 unique visitors per month, with overwhelmingly positive feedback: “Finally someone understands”, commented one mother, with another stating that the site will “change the narrative of guilt and shame against mothers and certainly will make a difference to our already stressful journey”.

The BFN stated that the website is a “useful resource for our peer supporters because it helps deepen their understanding of women’s experiences and makes us more aware of the issues that influence infant feeding decisions”

Face-to-face engagement and training for mothers and practitioners

Woollard and her colleagues have been prolific organisers of engagement and training events aimed at mothers, non-mothers, midwives, trainee midwives, GPs, health visitors, NCT practitioners, BFN practitioners, policy makers and academics. Over 1000 people have engaged with the research face-to-face, and latterly over 1000 have attended workshops online.

The events were mutually beneficial, both feeding into the development of the Feeling Good website and helping mothers and practitioners to be more sensitive and less judgmental about others’ feeding decisions.

The BFN stated that Woollard had provided “a framework and words for looking more objectively at the influences on infant feeding decisions and the tensions within. Once parents have words to express their feelings it takes the weight off their internal struggles. It can’t solve the dilemma, what it does do is reduce the guilt and shame. That is invaluable.”

Accredited professional development and policy

In 2018 Woollard was contacted by Alberta Health Services, the largest health authority in Canada, to assist with Alberta’s provincial breastfeeding policy and an accompanying online Breastfeeding Course – both aimed at midwives, lactation consultants, and all other practitioners involved in breastfeeding families.

Based on Woollard’s research, the language of the policy moves away from discussing the “benefits” of breastfeeding and the “risks” of using formula, to a more balanced discussion of the health considerations of each feeding option. It avoids positioning breastfeeding as a default option, even though in the past this has been perceived as appropriate and even beneficial, and it acknowledges the difficulty of supporting informed feeding decisions in a wider context in which mothers are strongly disposed to feel judged for their choices.

Woollard has also contributed her research to an international accredited professional development module for education provider ‘Gold Lactation’ and to BFN’s training activity for Neonatal Unit helpers, “Exploring Attitudes to Infant Feeding”, given to around 100 volunteers a year.

Key Publications

List of all staff members in
Staff MemberPrimary Position
Fiona WoollardProfessor
    Share this case study Share this on Facebook Share this on Twitter Share this on Weibo
    Privacy Settings