Will you have a natural birth or go numb from the waist down? What about carrying your baby in a sling or using a traditional pram? For pregnant women and new mothers, endless such choices are fraught with social stigma. But the most divisive is whether to breastfeed or not. Whatever women decide, they report feeling criticised by others.
Now a study has revealed that a social media craze designed to help women feel more comfortable breastfeeding in public – taking “brelfie” photos – has actually fuelled a competitive atmosphere in which mothers who bottlefeed feel “judged at every turn” for their choice. Efforts to break down barriers to breastfeeding seem to have provoked an unwanted backlash against mothers who cannot or choose not to feed themselves – many for medical reasons.
Celebrity mothers including rock star Gwen Stefani have posted shots of themselves breastfeeding online. But Siobhan Freegard, co-founder of Netmums, said the fad meant mothers were now under intense pressure to feed naturally – or “bressure”, as she dubbed it. Research commissioned by the Channel Mum website found that seven in 10 bottlefeeders said they had been judged negatively, and four in 10 felt they had “failed as a mum and failed their child”.
The NHS recommends mothers breastfeed their baby exclusively for the first six months if possible, and thereafter mix it with other food. But the poll of more than 2,000 mothers found that 55 per cent thought campaigning to promote breastfeeding had gone too far and “places too much stress on new mums”.
Zoe Armfield, a 33-year-old mother from Liverpool, has fed her 11-month-old son Oscar using formula milk since he was 12 weeks old after he struggled to latch on and began losing weight fast.
“Sometimes I’d feel ashamed to say he was formula fed despite the decision being taken out of my hands a bit as it was his tongue tie that was causing problems,” she explained. “I found it hard to accept that, because of this decision, I was suddenly excluded from a lot of groups I had been attending.”
She added: “All new mums need the same support no matter how their babies are fed.”
Amy Ferguson, 34, from Southampton, breastfed for a year but said she “felt enormous pressure” to do so. “The stress caused by feeding difficulties nearly ruined the first weeks with our son. I didn’t give up as I felt I’d be judged if I bottlefed,” she said. “I’d been almost brainwashed into thinking formula was akin to poison. Looking back, I can see that other mums wouldn’t have batted an eyelid as everyone knows how hard it is.”
Ms Ferguson also reported pressure in the opposite direction, from older family members who felt that breastfeeding after four months was unnecessary. “I was judged for that too,” she said.
Online, mothers are now preparing a backlash. Using the hashtag #bressure they will post messages about how feeding their child has made them feel. Ms Freegard said: “Swapping abusing mums who breastfeed in public for mums who bottlefeed isn’t progress. Those mums who do choose to bottlefeed – for whatever reason – must not be made to feel second class citizens.”
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