Sociology: Breastfeeding and society

Our first article will investigate the sociological aspects of food in relation to children and youth. The information being shared with you here is taken from multiple chapters (each independently written by a different author) from the book entitled Studies in Child and Youth: Children, food and identity in everyday life.

Food is not only about calories and protein, it also structures the way our society functions. Because food is so essential to us, it is a significant factor in establishing what our society considers to be good parenting, acceptable gendered behaviour and a happy family (James et al., 2009, p. 3). James et. al. (2009) comments on this social structure, saying:

“From the moment children are born, their responses to food and eating practices are shaped by the ways in which they interact with others (Lupton 1998). Cross-cultural studies of food and eating practices, for example, reveal differences not only related to diet, but also in how eating practices and meals reflect and constitute intergenerational relations, discipline, the transmission of value and norms, morals, emotional expressions and so on. Thus, children’s participation in common meals has a significant symbolic value as an assertion of belonging to a particular culture (Douglas 2002)” (p. 3).

This cultural shaping of our eating patterns and interactions starts as early as when the child is first born with the controversial topic of breastfeeding. Let us start off by saying that, as a group of individuals who have not breastfed children, we approach this subject with the utmost respect and ambiguity. It is important to state that the intention of this post is not to debate the health implications of breast feeding, it is to illustrate that the choice – to breastfeed or not to breastfeed – has been excluded from selected social classes.

For example, Keenan & Stapleton (2009) suggests in It Depends What You Mean by Feeding “On Demand”’: Mothers’ Accounts of Babies’ Agency in Infant-Feeding Relationships that breastfeeding has become a privilege of the upper and middle classes. “Exclusive breast feeding and delayed introduction of solids are favoured by mothers from managerial or professional occupations; those with the highest education levels; [women] aged 30 or over; first time mothers; and those able to delay their return to paid employment” (Keenan & Stapleton, 2009, p. 16). Therefore, the children who would most benefit from the nourishment of breast milk are least likely to breastfeed (Keenan & Stapleton, 2009, p. 16). Furthermore, studies from past decades have advocated the benefits of formula-feeding in replacement of breastfeeding. This implies that mothers are incapable of providing the proper nourishment for their children and instils a lack of confidence in their mothering ability. The lack of confidence in their bodies’ ability to nourish – coupled with projected ideals of how a women should look – may contribute to the method of feeding, and how/when to feed their baby. Although, it is not known whether lack of maternal confidence may be linked with inappropriate or inadequate feeding regimes which, in turn, may predispose vulnerable infants to obesity in later life” (Keenan & Stapleton, 2009, p. 21). Additionally, according to Douglas, overweight and obese women are less likely to breastfeed (Keenan & Stapleton, 2009, p. 16). This begs the question: why?

Finally, women who chose to breastfeed also made the choice to feed their babies on a schedule dictated by the mother or when their baby demanded it. Of the mothers who chose to feed their babies on-demand, some also described instances of “front-loading”.  Front-loading refers to force-feeding a baby to accommodate a mother’s schedule; perhaps before an important event of some sort. That way, babies will not cry out at inappropriate times to be fed (Keenan & Stapleton, 2009, p. 23). It is relatively unknown in psychology the effects on an individual of being breastfed or not. Power struggles, however, are obviously recognized early on in life. Therefore, we can deduce how our identities will be shaped for us, based on how and when we are fed as babies:

“… our data also show, focusing on these everyday consumption practices helps to illuminate a range of problems and the ways in which childhood identities are constructed and mediated through food and feeding encounters. We anticipate, therefore, that this work will enable a more measured and insightful understanding of the various and subtle dimensions of the relationship between infants, food and identity than is normally available in the media and within professional and lay discourses” (Keenan & Stapleton, 2009, p. 29-30).

Therefore, breastfeeding is not a simple health practice; it is also deeply rooted in various social structures and belief systems, thereby complicating the subject of breastfeeding even further.

Now we open the question to you, what are your thoughts on breastfeeding? Please share your comments with us below.

Sources

James, A., Kjorholt, A. T., & Tingstad, V. (2009). Introduction. In A. James, A. Kjorholt & V. Tingstad (Eds.), Studies in Childhood and Youth: Children, food and identity in everyday life. England: Palgrave Macmillan.

Keenan, J., & Stapleton, H. (2009). ‘It Depends What You Mean by Feeding “On Demand”’: Mothers’ Accounts of Babies’ Agency in Infant-Feeding Relationships. In A. James, A. Kjorholt & V. Tingstad (Eds.), Studies in Childhood and Youth: Children, food and identity in everyday life. England: Palgrave Macmillan.

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