Shame if you do--shame if you don't: women's experiences of infant feeding

Matern Child Nutr. 2015 Jan;11(1):33-46. doi: 10.1111/mcn.12148. Epub 2014 Aug 19.


Emotions such as guilt and blame are frequently reported by non-breastfeeding mothers, and fear and humiliation are experienced by breastfeeding mothers when feeding in a public context. In this paper, we present new insights into how shame-related affects, cognitions and actions are evident within breastfeeding and non-breastfeeding women's narratives of their experiences. As part of an evaluation study of the implementation of the UNICEF UK Baby Friendly Initiative Community Award within two primary (community based) care trusts in North West England, 63 women with varied infant feeding experiences took part in either a focus group or an individual semi-structured interview to explore their experiences, opinions and perceptions of infant feeding. Using a framework analysis approach and drawing on Lazare's categories of shame, we consider how the nature of the event (infant feeding) and the vulnerability of the individual (mother) interact in the social context to create shame responses in some breastfeeding and non-breastfeeding mothers. Three key themes illustrate how shame is experienced and internalised through 'exposure of women's bodies and infant feeding methods', 'undermining and insufficient support' and 'perceptions of inadequate mothering'. The findings of this paper highlight how breastfeeding and non-breastfeeding women may experience judgement and condemnation in interactions with health professionals as well as within community contexts, leading to feelings of failure, inadequacy and isolation. There is a need for strategies and support that address personal, cultural, ideological and structural constraints of infant feeding.

Keywords: breastfeeding; formula feeding; guilt; infant feeding; qualitative; shame; women.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Breast Feeding / psychology*
  • Emotions
  • England
  • Ethnic Groups
  • Female
  • Health Knowledge, Attitudes, Practice
  • Health Promotion
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Infant Formula
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Perception
  • Self Concept
  • Shame*
  • Social Support
  • Young Adult