Infant feeding policy requires major overhaul

In a briefing document issued today (28 February) by the Centre for Parenting Culture Studies (CPCS) at the University of Kent, Dr Ellie Lee argues that policy on infant feeding requires a major overhaul if it is to be fit for purpose.

Dr Lee was motivated to make this call for a fresh look at infant feeding policy on the basis of her own research, that of colleagues in Britain and elsewhere, as well as the many representations she has received in recent years from angry, confused or distressed parents.

For the briefing, she reviewed articles published during the last decade by scholars working in the social sciences and humanities and draws the following conclusions:

    • Infant feeding needs to be depoliticised.

      The briefing argues, 'Policy in this area should aim to support individual mothers to feed their babies in the way that makes most sense for them and their families. It should cease to connect mothers' infant feeding practices with solving wider social and health problems. Doing so, evidence suggests, has failed to do much to increase breastfeeding rates; has generated a distorted picture of the causes of health and social problems; and has encouraged a situation where many mothers experience being placed under pressure to feed their baby according to priorities laid down by others'.

        • Policy makers should treat infant feeding as an issue in its own terms.

          The briefing argues, 'Active efforts need to be made to separate infant feeding from morally-charged ideas and rhetoric about motherhood. The moralisation of infant feeding is detrimental for mothers - however they feed their babies - and damaging for wider society. Policy needs to be disentangled from the promotion of a particular orientation towards motherhood and family life'.

            • Policy makers should aim to promote an ethos and practice whereby choice really means choice.

              The briefing argues, 'Mothers feed their babies in a range of ways, yet as things stand, lip-service is paid to choice in infant feeding: alternatives to breastfeeding are routinely portrayed as inferior. As a result, tensions exist between mothers and health service staff. Policy makers need to work to change this situation. Mothers should be provided with properly balanced information about all feeding methods as a matter of course. Policy should seek to encourage maternal confidence and a sense of mutual trust between mothers and those who are there to offer advice and support. They should seek to engage fully with the real experience mothers have of feeding their babies, and develop the approach of the health service accordingly'.

              Of the briefing, Dr Lee said: 'The public health strategy published recently by the coalition government argues for essentially the same approach to this issue that has been taking place for the past 15 years. But there are very good reasons for arguing that this approach has not worked well, and that problems need to be addressed that are currently just not being considered by policymakers. We hope that this briefing will encourage serious discussion that takes into account the findings of intelligent, well-designed research and commentary.'

              The briefing document, titled 'Feeding babies and the problems of policy', can be downloaded at https://blogs.kent.ac.uk/parentingculturestudies/resources/cpcs-briefings/

              CPCS, which is based at the University's School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research (SSPSSR), is also organising a one-day symposium on 21 March 2011 at the British Library conference centre on 'Feeding children in the new parenting culture'. This will feature a lecture by Joan Wolf from Texas A&M University and author of Is breast best? Taking on the Breastfeeding Experts and the New High Stakes of Motherhood (New York and London: NYU Press).

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