The Semantics of Motherhood

One area of particular semanticity (yes, that is a real word) in motherhood is how we feed our babies and the language we use with mothers.

Do we talk about risk of formula, or do we talk of benefits of breastfeeding?

Does it really matter?

Why do we need to paint everyone with the same brush. Why use the same language for all women?

It makes no sense.

Through the Younger Mums Project with Australian Breastfeeding Association, we did something extraordinary: we asked young (under25) mums what they want.

Fancy that!
It turns out they want (surprise surprise):

Information, Respect and Freedom to Decide


They also don’t want breastfeeding ‘forced’ on them.

And this is where the language matters.

For women who are undecided or wavering (and certainly leaning towards not breastfeeding), telling them the risks puts up their defences. This language feels like an attack. It is likely that they come from a non-breastfeeding culture.  They have not experienced breastfeeding as normal, and so hear this new information as a suggestion that they and their family (and/or friends) are NOT normal. Why would you take advice from someone who has (from your point of view) attacked you?  Why would you respect someone who has not respected you?
It is much more helpful to first offer respect and then to provide information and a space to ask questions.

The participants in the Younger Mums Project identified ABA’s ‘Breastfeeding Confidence’ booklet as what they wanted (nothing more, nothing less).

If they were given multiple pamphlets and ‘hassled’ at each antenatal visit about breastfeeding, it actually made them less likely to breastfeed because they wanted to get away from the pressure and perceived judgement. Likewise, after their baby was born, if they were poked and prodded and their questions were dismissed, they were less likely to continue breastfeeding.


Because they were not respected

This lack of respect leaves mums feeling vulnerable, alone and attacked.  They certainly do not feel supported.

Imagine if they were treated respectfully, gently and hands off.  If they were shown baby-led attachment and offered quality breastfeeding information (such as the ABA booklet identified in the project).  In all this – language matters.  Positive language (benefits) is far more effective than negative (risk) language.


Understanding the risks is important – it is information…but wording it negatively can lead to negative feelings about breastfeeding and women unwilling to accept information offered (however factual it may be). I think that human nature rejects information that makes us feel bad, when we are overloaded and overwhelmed with info, it is much easier (and nicer) to go with what makes us feel good, supported and informed.


I also think that part of this is that risk is not easy to understand.  We take risks everyday.  Why wouldn’t this be just another risk you were prepared to take?

Ultimately, it is up to the individual to work out what it best for her.  An informed decision must take into account the circumstances of the individual.  If a woman does not come from a breastfeeding culture (i.e. her family and friends do not value or understand it, have not experienced it positively or find it abhorrent), she faces a much greater challenge. Even if she manages to breastfeed without problems, she will soon face the pressure to wean.  This issue is much greater than simply understanding that breastfeeding is normal, and important to normal development.  This is a cultural issue, and support from our immediate circle is crucial to the success of breastfeeding.  

It will take many generations to re-normalise breastfeeding.  We can talk about breastfeeding being normal, which it is biologically, but it is not the cultural norm for many women.  You can not talk to a woman about breastfeeding without considering and respecting her cultural norm.  This is called Unconditional Positive Regard.

Much more powerful than negative language.  Much more respectful.

Whether we are dealing with feeding, sleep, birth or the many other choice-laden aspects of parenting:

Respect goes a long way

see also

 Birth with Dignity

Why we shouldn’t promote breastfeeding




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