How do you feed your baby? It might sound like a simple question, but emotions run high around infant- feeding decisions: formula feeders are told that they are ‘selfish’ while breastfeeding mothers are labelled ‘exhibitionists’ for breastfeeding in public. A lot of the guilt, shame and blame surrounding how we choose to feed our babies, springs from philosophical mistakes in the way we think and talk about women’s bodies and behaviour —particularly when they become mothers.
Fixing these mistakes can help us to promote and support breastfeeding, while combating guilt and shame surrounding infant feeding.
The blame game
Many new mothers feel guilt and shame about how they feed their babies. Formula feeding is associated with guilt and blame, while women breastfeeding in public feel discomfort, humiliation and fear. Sociologist Elizabeth Murphy describes infant feeding decisions as ‘an accountable matter’; mothers feel they have to justify their decisions to avoid being seen as bad mothers. And because new mothers are so vulnerable, this can have devastating effects.
At the same time, how babies are fed is a major public health issue. A report by UNICEF UK estimates that improving breastfeeding rates could save the National Health Service (NHS) £31 million for each annual group of first-time mothers, by protecting mothers and babies from serious illnesses.
This means, we face a huge challenge: we need to promote and support breastfeeding without shaming formula feeders. I think philosophy can help by identifying mistakes in the way we think and talk about a mother’s body and behaviour.