'Supply' and 'demand': breastfeeding as labour

Soc Sci Med. 2005 May;60(10):2283-93. doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2004.10.002. Epub 2005 Jan 11.


This paper presents findings from a recent critical ethnographic study conducted in two maternity units in England, UK. The study explored the influences upon 61 women's experiences of breastfeeding within the postnatal ward setting. Participant observations of 97 encounters between midwives and postnatal women, 106 focused interviews with postnatal women and 37-guided conversations with midwives were conducted. Basic, organising and global themes were constructed utilising thematic networks analysis. The metaphor of the production line, with its notions of demand and efficient supply, illustrated the experiences of breastfeeding women. They conceptualised breastfeeding as a 'productive' project, yet expressed deep mistrust in the efficacy of their bodies. Their emphasis centred upon breast milk as nutrition rather than relationality and breastfeeding. Women referred to the demanding and unpredictable ways in which their baby breached their temporal and spatial boundaries. They sought strategies to cope with the uncertainty of this embodied experience in combination with their concerns regarding returning to a 'normal' and 'productive' life. The hospital setting and health worker practices played a contributing and reinforcing role. The paper discusses ways of re-establishing trust in women's bodies and breastfeeding, while respecting difference and diversity. It argues for embracing the concepts of embodiment and relationality whilst avoiding a return to essentialism. This requires collective efforts to erode deeply embedded cultural understandings of women's bodies centering upon disembodied and efficient production.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Psychological
  • Attitude to Health / ethnology*
  • Breast Feeding / psychology*
  • Culture
  • England
  • Female
  • Hospital Units
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Infant Care / psychology*
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Mothers / psychology*
  • Organizational Culture
  • Postnatal Care
  • Self Efficacy*
  • Social Support
  • Sociology, Medical