Breastfeeding: marketing mothers’ anxiety

Charlotte Faircloth

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Topics Politics

Last weekend, Channel 4 News reported that growing numbers of women in the UK are turning to the internet to buy breastmilk. However, a recent study found that human milk sold online can contain dangerous levels of bacteria.

Milk banks were originally set up to provide breastmilk for seriously sick or pre-term infants, through a carefully regulated system whereby donors were screened, and the milk carefully expressed, stored and distributed in sanitised conditions. And at the other end of the spectrum, in research with ‘lactivists’, there are occasional stories of women feeding each others’ babies through a system of informal expressing or wet-nursing (usually sisters or close friends). What this story shows, however, is that there is a growing demand for breastmilk among the wider population of mothers.

This is evidence that women are hearing the ‘breast is best’ message that is currently promoted by the National Health Service and others – a message which is often conveyed by demonising the choice to formula feed, presenting it as a risky option, with negative effects on children’s outcomes. Understandably, then, parents are going to ever greater lengths to get breastmilk into their babies.

At the Centre for Parenting Culture Studies at Kent we have been looking for some time at how infant feeding has become an increasingly moralised issue, ever more tied to ideas about good motherhood (and fatherhood). Breastfeeding, while undoubtedly an enjoyable experience for many mothers, has become fetishised to the extent that how (or what) women feed their babies is seen as a marker of how dedicated one is as a mother. Conversely, the failure to breastfeed has been held responsible for wider health inequalities like the prevalence of obesity or cancer.

The fact that there is a market for breastmilk shows how far parents’ anxieties can be played upon, but it now leaves them in another tricky situation: weighing up the risk of not giving their babies breastmilk against the risk of giving their babies unscreened milk. This problem is apparently well-established, and the Department of Health is currently in talks about what to do about this new phenomenon.

This is a little ironic, given it was the Department of Health who institutionalised the more moralised approach to infant feeding in the first place. One study out last week shows how negative this has been for many women, who feel that midwives are now ‘not allowed’ to talk to them about formula feeding, leaving them feeling pressurised into breastfeeding (or, arguably, providing breastmilk for their babies in some other form). A more useful approach might be one which explains that formula milk is a perfectly safe, healthy alternative for babies in a developed context like the UK – and certainly cheaper than buying breastmilk from others! Moreover, it is good to remember that there is more to being a good parent than what you feed your child.

Charlotte Faircloth is a Leverhulme Trust early career fellow at the Centre for Parenting Culture Studies at the University of Kent. With her colleagues, she is co-author of Parenting Culture Studies, to be published by Palgrave Macmillan in spring 2014.

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Topics Politics