Breastfeeding and Society

When our little one came along, I was so determined to exclusively breastfeed for at least six months. I thought it was going to be easy peasy because after all it is the most natural way of nourishing and nurturing our babies. A lot of you would probably tell me outright that I was so wrong but I am so happy I stuck with it for as long as possible because I can see the benefits of it in my child. He is healthy and full of life.

BE A STAR
Image courtesy of Be A Star organisation

In my Social Psychology module for my MSc, I evaluated a campaign about breastfeeding and the society’s response to it. I got a fairly positive mark so I’d like to share some excerpts from that essay.

“Breastfeeding is the natural and physiological way of providing the nutrients that the baby needs especially for the first six months of her life when no solid foods should be introduced yet. Breast milk also provides the antibodies that babies need and has a multitude of health benefits to the mother such as reducing rates of ovarian and breast cancer. This is a part of the recommendations by UNICEF and the World Health Organization (WHO) that exclusive breastfeeding is the best for babies up to six months and beyond.

For a process so instinctive and natural as breastfeeding, it still remains a contentious and controversial issue drawing much attention in the media particularly in the UK and the United States. Various campaigns have been created such as the ‘Be A Star’ campaign to highlight the benefits of breastfeeding over formula and to try and encourage young mothers to follow their advice.

According to the statistics on breastfeeding released in the 2010 Infant Feeding Survey which is a national survey conducted every five years on behalf of the Department of Health, initial breastfeeding rate increased from 76% in 2005 to 81% in 2010 in the UK. Breastfeeding being defined as putting the baby to the breast or being fed by expressed breast milk. Incidence of breastfeeding by country follows the same pattern as in 2005, with initial breastfeeding rates highest in England (83%).”

Breastfeeding warriors are everywhere but at this day and age people still openly show disgust when they see someone breastfeeding. I had a similar experience with my then 2 month old baby. After doing some shopping, my husband and I walked in a coffee shop because my baby was scheduled for a feed. While waiting for our orders, the little one gave a small cry which I have come to recognise as hunger. I then readied myself, I was wearing a discreet nursing top by the way, plus I had a cloth to cover my baby’s face while feeding. A woman in a table across us yelled “You’re not gonna feed your baby here, are you?… that practice belongs to the jungle!” She said a lot more as she left but I couldn’t hear well because my baby started to cry louder. My husband got angry but politely said to her “This is the most natural way to nourish a baby, Oh my God!” I turned almost red as I started to feed my baby and was about to burst into tears with frustration (I blame the hormones that time) when I caught a glimpse of people from two other tables who sympathetically smiled and said, “Don’t mind her”.

“As a new mother myself, the unspoken norm among my colleagues in postnatal mother and baby yoga and pilates was to breastfeed. Breastfeed because everywhere we go as a new mother we hear “breast is best” and in the campaign, you’re a “star” if you do. This trend has also been propagated by the concept of Attachment Parenting, an idea conceived by well-known American paediatrician Dr. Sears who postulated that breastfeeding is one of the best ways to create natural attachment to your child compared to bottle feeding with formula milk. So while having a cup of tea after the mother and baby exercises we would chat with each other and most of the mothers would breastfeed their babies at the same time. Anyone bottle feeding her baby would feel uneasy. This brings to light the concept of Social Identity Theory formulated by Tajfel and Turner (1979, 1986) which is how individuals connect to a social network by identifying positively from their own ingroup and contrasting with the outgroup. For the case of the ‘Be A Star’ campaign, it aims to influence young mothers to think that being in the ingroup means you breastfeed and you’re a “star”. The National Health Service (NHS) of the UK, UNICEF and WHO would definitely agree with this but this has the potential to negatively infer discrimination and possibly conflict in some cases when a mother who is not able to breastfeed for various reasons voices out her thoughts about it. An example of feeling discriminated against by the ingroup would be a new mother who was part of the same yoga and pilates group discontinuing with the group exercises because she cannot breastfeed for some anatomical reasons. Maybe she had breast augmentation for medical reasons before the pregnancy or just wasn’t able to produce breast milk. In my assessment of the ‘Be A Star’ campaign’s route to persuasion, the Social Identity Theory provides the strongest explanatory power among the young mothers’ response. The campaign doesn’t infer you’re not a star if you feed your baby infant formula milk and you’re a part of the outgroup but most likely a young mother might be pressured to believe that.

Attitudes towards mothers breastfeeding their babies have been constantly changing and statistics on infant feeding trends also changes as well. Because of all the information available at our fingertips, including advantages of breastfeeding which the ‘Be A Star’ campaign is currently promoting, any mother can make an informed decision about her choice in infant feeding. The Theory of Reasoned Action (Fishbein & Ajzen, 1975) which states that the behaviour is predicted by the intention determined by attitudes and the subjective norms could explain this. To put simply, any mother with the intention of providing the best possible start in life for her baby would likely breastfeed providing no evident hindrances are present such as biological and physical conditions. Thus the ‘Be A Star’ campaign highlights that its aim is to increase the number of mothers who choose to breastfeed their babies.

As a continuation of another social psychological concept, Attribution Theory would also potentially help explain situations when a mother is breastfeeding or is formula feeding. According to this theory we make sense of our own and others’ behaviour and this could also provide an explanatory power on the responses and attitudes on breastfeeding by these young mothers and the public in general. Why is she breastfeeding or why is she not? The ‘Be A Star’ campaigns answers this, she is breastfeeding ‘because she is a star’. According to the WHO, virtually all women can breastfeed provided they have the accurate information, they have the support of their family, a health care system and the whole society they are in. Nowadays the choice a woman makes regarding how to feed her baby is greatly affected by current attitudes in society at large even though it is such a natural process that should be instinctive. Breastfeeding was always the choice of infant feeding until formula milk was introduced in the 1950s and touted to be the best for babies. Society then adapted to that choice and it has only been in the past two decades when several breastfeeding awareness campaigns have sprung up worldwide. Various studies showed that several infant illnesses could be avoided if breast milk was the primary choice of infant feeding.

Another social psychological concept that potentially applies to the public response towards this campaign on breastfeeding would be Moscovisci’s (1980) Conversion Theory. This would be dependent on the demographics of the target audience and which influence elicits the attitude towards breastfeeding. In a population with more breastfeeding mothers and breastfeeding advocates, majority influence bears more weight, public conformity could be highly likely to occur because of the need to reduce conflict. In a population wherein breastfeeding is advocated by a minority, then a validation about breastfeeding and its benefits is triggered and required before the decision. Because breastfeeding provides various benefits to both the mother and baby, this then would most likely lead to private conversion to being positive about breastfeeding. Whether the demographics consist of breastfeeding advocates or not, conversion to breastfeeding is the aim of the ‘Be A Star’ campaign. Because giving your baby the best possible start in life makes you a “star”. I say that this is only a potential explanation because I believe the tendency to reduce conflict between minority and majority, of mothers who breastfeed and mothers who feed their babies infant formula milk is quite low. There is no conflict, just the choice on infant feeding.”

I know this was quite a long read so thank you if you managed to. I drew some data from the following so please visit them if you want more information. I also used a few Social Psychology references in this essay which you can read on if interested.

 

Be A Star website, 17 November 2014, http://www.beastar.org.uk/

Department of health survey reports 8 out of 10 babies are now breastfed, 17 November 2014, http://www.unicef.org.uk/Latest/News/breasfeeding-infant-feeding-survey-baby-friendly-initiative/

 

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