Breastfeeding and what it means to be a good mother

This month’s issue of the journal Health, Risk & Society includes an article on the moralizing discourse used to promote breastfeeding, Contextualising risk, constructing choice: Breastfeeding and good mothering in risk society. Stephanie Knaak, a sociologist, claims that breastfeeding promotion in first world countries is about much more than what an infant eats.

… this discourse is not a benign communique about the relative benefits of breastfeeding, but an ideologically infused, moral discourse about what it means to be a ‘good mother’ in an advanced capitalist society.

Knaak starts by noting that “risk management” has become a major feature of contemporary mothering.

As one of the primary concerns of modern post-industrial societies, we are becoming increasingly concerned with understanding, calculating, communicating, managing, and otherwise minimising or eliminating myriad risks associated with everyday life. So it is for the arena of parenting and motherhood. Indeed, it is argued that the role of motherhood in contemporary society is being redesigned in such a way that mothers are being increasingly positioned as veritable ‘risk managers’.

Within this ideology, mothers are seen as having a moral and social responsibility
to be risk conscious…

It makes sense that mothers would be encouraged to minimize risks to their children, but the attention given to various risks appears to have no relationship to their magnitude. As Knaak explains:

Risk, however, is socially and ideologically mediated… Indeed, ‘risk consciousness’ and associated decision-making is often related more to the emotive consequences and meanings attached to certain identified risks than to any rational calculation of probability …

The efforts to encourage breastfeeding represent a perfect example. Breastfeeding has real health benefits, but those benefits are small. Yet breastfeeding promotion has taken on moralizing tone typically associated with grave threats to children’s health:

…[T]oday’s dominant infant feeding discourse functions more as a vehicle of persuasion than as a vehicle of education, characterised by informational biases, moral overtones, and a restrictive construction of choice. Attention has also been given to the increasingly hegemonic and homogeneous character of pro-breastfeeding discourse, where alternative choices about infant feeding tend to be interpreted as acts of moral deviance rather than counter-discourses or acts of resistance…

Since the benefits of breastfeeding are small, it is really no one else’s concern what method of infant feeding an individual mother chooses. But women cannot keep themselves from criticizing other women’s choices and they rationalize this by a conception of public health that is growing ever more intrusive:

The increasing moralisation of public health is another part of what lends power to this feature of contemporary breastfeeding discourse. Namely, the tendency in public health discourse to increasingly frame personal health choices/practices as issues of social and moral responsibility makes breastfeeding much more than just a personal decision. Within this kind of discursive environment, breastfeeding becomes part of how good (i.e. socially responsible, moral) motherhood is defined.

Knaak draws from interviews with new mothers to describe how this moralizing works:

… [M]any of the mothers viewed commercial infant formula not only as nutritionally less superior, but in specifically negative terms. In as much as the larger discourse acknowledges both breastfeeding and formula feeding as ‘acceptable’ choices, there is an ever-increasing discursive gap between these two options; namely, that breastfeeding has become more and more idealised, and formula feeding ever more devalued.

Breastfeeding advocates have gone far beyond simple attempts to educated women about the benefits of breastfeeding. They have explicitly framed one feeding choice as “good” and another as “bad.” And they imply that only those women who make “good” choices can be good mothers.

… [T]his association of breastfeeding with ‘good mothering’ and formula feeding with ‘not so good mothering’ has been argued to be a key characteristic of today’s dominant infant feeding discourse. In large part, this can be attributed to the fact that pro-breastfeeding discourse is organised and mediated by: (a) a moralising public health ideology; and (b) the ‘ideology of intensive mothering’, today’s dominant parenting ideology.

Breastfeeding advocates disingenuously claim that they are merely trying to convey the facts about infant feeding methods. In reality they are attempting to promote one particular ideology of mothering and to shame women who refuse to conform.