Psychology and Breastfeeding...

As a psychology student and a breastfeeding counsellor the opportunity to attend a seminar merging these two interests (boobs and brains as a friend indelicately put it) was far too good to pass up.   Abigail Locke is a visiting social psychologist from Huddersfield University in the UK, and presented her findings from a recent study exploring the tensions, expectations and realistic advice in early breastfeeding.  Abigail’s paper included interviews from 12 mothers with recent infant feeding experiences.  Abigail’s study used discursive methods, analysing the conversations for common themes and interactions in the various experiences of mothers.

Each of the 12 mothers had been positive about breastfeeding during their pregnancies, and expected to breastfeed.  They articulated the knowledge that breastfeeding was great for babies and mothers and breastmilk was nutritionally superior.  By six weeks, almost half had switched to infant formula, in line with the UKs national statistics.  So, what happened in those early weeks that challenged the decisions of these capable, educated, financially stable women?  A few themes emerged.  Many suggested that in hindsight they may have had an unrealistic idea of what breastfeeding would be like, underestimated the challenges, or did not have a plan for how to get through issues that did arise.  Abigail suggested that there is a discrepancy between expectations of motherhood wrapped up in the adage ‘breast is best’ and the realities of success – reflected in the significant change in breastfeeding figures between initiation and six weeks.  In the face of the compelling evidence in favour of breastmilk and breastfeeding, the vast majority of women see breastfeeding as the informed choice.  However for many mothers, NOT breastfeeding becomes a necessity when baby comes along, and issues become overwhelming.   We talk of “choice” but is either a choice?  Are these mothers prepared by their community for the realities of breastfeeding and the significant changes a woman goes through in the early weeks of her baby’s life?

Abigail suggested there is a tension between competing feminist themes.  One ‘side’ tends to send the message of the ‘total mother’ who embraces everything there is about being a woman, taking control of her body and her womanhood and feeding her baby herself.  Many of us can identify with this discourse.  The competing feminist theme is the one that tells us that it is our right to choose how to feed our babies, to not be tied down by being a mother, equal sharing of responsibility of raising children with our partners and pursuing equal participation in careers and society.  Many of us identify with this also.  Many of these conflicting sources of identity and practise enter our lives about the same time as the new baby and early weeks of this new adventure.  It’s where the rubber of feminist theory (and many other theories and preconceived ideas) meet the road of real life. 

As a LLL Leader, I am encouraged that La Leche League provides a positive environment that does address issues raised by Abigail for many women.  During her study, Abigail herself had offered these women an incredible gift.  She listened to their stories, offered them time and space to discuss their breastfeeding journeys; something we do regularly at meetings.  As a peer support organisation, La Leche League is a place where breastfeeding is valued, but realities are shared.  Stories, challenges and decisions are accepted and endorsed. Many mothers continue to find support and encouragement long after the breastfeeding relationship has ended and if breastfeeding doesn’t work out as they had hoped for.  Considering how much time and energy we spend talking about breastfeeding, I often wonder where mothers go to share their experiences of infant feeding when breastfeeding doesn’t work out especially if this was important to them. How do they come to terms with this in positive ways, address their feelings of loss, or confusion or understanding about what went awry.  We all need to talk, in varying ways and amounts, and maybe more so when it has not worked out.  Abigail’s studies highlighted the importance of peer support, of talking and encouraging and acknowledging people where they are at. 

Motherhood challenges so much of our identity.  We question how we were parented, how we want to parent our children, who we are as women, mothers, and how we participate in our community.  LLL continues to be an organisation that offers support and information to women to enable them to make choices that are right for them and their family.  If that choice is being the primary nurturer for her family, or to share that more equally, or to work outside the home, or be devoted to an intense career, or somewhere in between, the aim of La Leche League is to facilitate mother to mother support and the sharing of positive ideas between women to endorse and encourage each other on their parenting journey.  La Leche League acknowledges and respects the realities of real women in their real lives - and for many women all around the world that often includes mixing family life and work life.  Improving outcomes for women in their daily lives is surely a goal of any positive feminist pursuit.

Many of the mothers in the study felt that they had unrealistic expectations of breastfeeding, and were unprepared by health messages that did not outline common problems.  La Leche League works particularly well when mothers participate in meetings during pregnancy, to see mothers breastfeed, and hear mothers talk of breastfeeding challenges and solutions certainly.  In this way expectant mothers connect with other mothers at various stages of breastfeeding.  They hear realistic presentations of breastfeeding, the joys and challenges, and possibilities for positive solutions to issues that may arise. 

I was particularly encouraged by Abigail’s professional fascination with these parents and their early experiences of infant feeding.  I love hearing mother’s stories, I love facilitating the shared  experiences and solutions between mothers at varying stages of breastfeeding and parenting, and encouragement, endorsement and empowerment this gives to women.  I think it really is the only way a choice can really be a choice, rather than the removal of a choice, such as is the case in so many breastfeeding experiences.  With support, information and preparation women can make the choices that are right for their families.

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