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A mother feeds her baby from a bottle

Combating guilt around infant feeding

Published: 14 March 2022

Philosophy research is helping combat negative feelings about infant feeding decisions that can have serious effects on the wellbeing of new mothers and their children.

Professor Fiona Woollard's findings have reached health professionals, infant feeding support volunteers and the public through interactive online resources, training, workshops and media engagement.

Existing sociological research shows formula feeding is strongly associated with guilt and shame. Women who want to breastfeed also experience shame, particularly around breastfeeding in public.

This can have negative effects on the autonomy and wellbeing of sometimes vulnerable mothers and their infants.

Fiona's research shows that this guilt and shame are unwarranted. It also reveals misunderstandings that influence the way we think about, talk about, and treat mothers.

'Mistakes we make are bad for everyone'

“The mistakes we make about infant feeding are bad for everyone,” says Fiona.

"People think that if we say there are benefits to breastfeeding, anyone who doesn’t breastfeed has to justify themselves. That’s bad for people who don’t breastfeed.

"But if we say ‘okay, there aren’t any benefits’, that’s bad for women who are breastfeeding, especially women who are putting a lot of effort into it. It makes their behaviour seem irrational.”

Fiona's research highlights:

  • how these misunderstandings contribute to unwarranted guilt and shame

  • why guilt and shame persist despite policy changes intended to support parents in their infant feeding decisions and despite the good intentions of many health workers

  • how judgement surrounding the use of infant formula hinders breastfeeding support

People think that if we say there are benefits to breastfeeding, anyone who doesn’t breastfeed has to justify themselves.
Professor of Philosophy

Unhelpful ways of talking and thinking

Fiona used the research as the basis of her Feeling Good About How We Feed Our Babies website, developed in collaboration with other experts.

Its aim 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.

Launched at Westminster in 2019, the website has had overwhelmingly positive feedback. One mother commented: “Finally someone understands". Another stated that the site will “change the narrative of guilt and shame against mothers and certainly will make a difference to our already stressful journey”.

Engagement and training events

Fiona and her colleagues have also organised engagement and training events aimed at mothers, non-mothers, midwives, trainee midwives, GPs, health visitors, National Childbirth Trust practitioners, Breastfeeding Network practitioners, policy makers and academics.

More than 1,000 people have attended online workshops.

The events have helped mothers and practitioners to be more sensitive and less judgemental about others’ feeding decisions.

Fiona has also helped Alberta Health Services, the largest health authority in Canada,with their breastfeeding policy and an accompanying online course.

And her research has contributed to a professional development module for education provider Gold Lactation, and to BFN’s training activity for neonatal unit volunteers.

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