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A qualitative exploration of the media's influence on UK women's views of breastfeeding

02 January 2022
18 min read
Volume 30 · Issue 1

Abstract

Background

In the UK, rates of exclusive breastfeeding at 6 months are at 1%, highlighting the need to encourage and improve the support provided to women to initiate and continue breastfeeding and to improve infant and maternal health. This study aimed to qualitatively explore the influence of media on the intention to initiate and continue breastfeeding.

Methods

This ethnographic study recruited 40 women; 31 with children and nine of childbearing age (19–28 years), with the intention to have children. Data were collected with semi-structured interviews and analysed using thematic analysis.

Results

Five themes associated with sociocultural influences on breastfeeding perceptions and behaviour were identified: family influence, privacy, media as a double-edged sword, negative exposure to breastfeeding and planned behaviour versus experience.

Conclusions

Media influences strengthened preconceived notions of breastfeeding. Social media can play an important role in maintaining breastfeeding though support but can also put undue negative pressure on mothers who struggle to breastfeed.

The proportion of mothers in the UK who feed their infants with infant formula has steadily increased (World Health Organization (WHO), 2021), Despite information campaigns about the importance of breastfeeding for reducing infant illness and mortality (WHO and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), 2003), rates of breastfeeding in the UK drop from 68% at birth to less than 50% at 6–8 weeks (Nicholson and Hayward, 2021). This places the national breastfeeding rates at one of the lowest levels internationally, higher only than the USA (Renfrew et al, 2012).

While many initiatives have attempted to improve breastfeeding rates in the UK (Shortis, 2019), decisions surrounding infant feeding tend to be made prior to pregnancy or in the first trimester (Sheehan et al, 2013) taking into account factors such as physical problems, embarrassment, social pressure, a lack of accurate information or partners being unsupportive of breastfeeding (Hauck et al, 2011; Oakley et al, 2014; Feenstra et al, 2018). A literature review of breastfeeding discontinuation before 6 months identified that a lack of support (either from significant others close to the breastfeeding mother or from health professionals), poor physical or emotional health of the mother and an insufficient milk supply were the main reasons, other than maternal choice, for early cessation of breastfeeding (Wray and Garside, 2018).

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