Family Matters

In the Battle Over Breast or Bottle, Guilt May Play a Role

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Ah, guilt. Such a useful emotion in so many varied ways.  As women, we’re made to feel guilty if we don’t want to become mothers. When we do have children, we feel guilt if we don’t read to our children fresh out of the womb, if we don’t pick the perfect preschool, if we don’t puree our own organic baby food. Yet those and myriad other concerns pale next to the mother of all guilt-laden parenting topics: breast or bottle.

Now a team of Australian researchers has trained its sights on the issue, wondering whether the versatile G-word is helping or hurting the cause of breastfeeding in the United Kingdom.

Women who don’t breastfeed are often dispatched on a lengthy guilt trip, although a more supportive approach might be more effective, says lead researcher Joy Parkinson, of the Queensland University of Technology (QUT). To test that theory, Parkinson is recruiting British mothers with babies less than 18 months old to participate in the “Feeding Your Bub” survey. (More on Why Most Moms Don’t Follow Breast-Feeding Recommendations)

In terms of boosting breastfeeding rates, a QUT study of nearly 1,400 U.S. and Australian women found that breastfeeding help and encouragement from friends and family was more important than advice or support from health professionals. In particular, dad plays a big role. The QUT study showed that 88% of women got strong support from their partners while just 31% received help from a professional.

The public health battle continues because breastfeeding rates are nowhere near what the American Academy of Pediatrics or the World Health Organization recommend. Although the Academy advises women to breastfeed their babies at least 12 months, less than half are still doing so at 6 months, despite a recommendation that babies be exclusively breast-fed during that period.

The “Breast Is Best” campaign has been ubiquitous for years, so many women are aware that breastfeeding confers health benefits to both mom and baby. But experts struggle with figuring out how to transfer that knowledge into a significant rise in breastfeeding rates. (More on Better-Nourished Babies Grow Up to Be Haler, Heartier Don Juans)

“Governments and breastfeeding advocates across the globe have tended to focus on a campaign of fear and guilt to push women to breastfeed and in the U.K. it’s no different,” says Parkinson. “What we have found in the U.S. and Australia is that preaching the benefits of breastfeeding is like preaching to the converted and does not increase breastfeeding duration rates.”

So does external guilt work? Miriam Labbok, director of the Carolina Global Breastfeeding Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, doubts it. Mothers of newborns are certainly familiar with guilt, but Labbok thinks it’s self-imposed. “The definition of mother in this country is guilt,” says Labbok. “They are feeling guilty not because we make them feel guilty but because they made the decision to breastfeed then can’t get the support they need.”

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