Emotional geographies of breastfeeding: Private and public spaces of support and stress

GFGRG dissertation joint 1st prize winner

Tabitha Shell, QMUL

The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends that all new mothers breastfeed their child exclusively for 6 months and states the factors that a woman needs to successfully breastfeed: consistent and correct information, personal, professional and societal support. However, these have also proven to be the root causes of pressure, stress and judgement around breastfeeding for a new mother, varying through different private and public spaces. Although Mahon-Daly and Andrews (2002) suggested that breastfeeding women are more comfortable breastfeeding in private spaces like the home, rather than public space, this research has challenged this. In several circumstances breastfeeding in public space was the solution to the entrapment, isolation and intrusion of others in the private space of the home.

Exisiting literature around breastfeeding is extensive in terms of statistics but more limited regarding breastfeeding mothers’ embodied experiences of breastfeeding in public. Particularly there is a need to understand how breastfeeding mothers engage with different forms of public space and certainly how private space can affect their experience of breastfeeding through feelings of isolation and intrusion from visitors. There is little discussed regarding the impacts of the interactions between the breastfeeding mother and professional support beyond the mention in work by Larson et al., (2008), which may have serious implications for the mother’s experience of breastfeeding, particularly between the private spaces of the hospital and the home. Similarly, the importance of the personal support networks in the experience of a breastfeeding mother is relatively neglected by academic literature (Bailey and Pain, 2001). Furthermore, there is less research on breastfeeding mothers’ engagement with activism, despite an increasing proportion of mother’s engaging with breastfeeding activism through social media, literature has not explored this or other more achievable, inclusive solutions to make breastfeeding mothers feel more than tolerated when breastfeeding in public. Literature should reflect the complex relationship between a society that does not seem to understand nor respect the hard work, stress and guilt of breastfeeding for women who are giving their all for their child, and an unsupportive but simultaneously pro-breastfeeding culture, mentioned by Knaak’s (2010) research.

Through the application of Emotional Geographies we can explore the emotions produced through experiences in various spaces. As Anderson and Smith (2001) conclude, to neglect emotions in academic research is to exclude a key part of how lives are lived and societies made. The report focuses on how these public and private spaces interact with the challenges a mother faces during her time breastfeeding within the context of a pro-breastfeeding culture, with key findings of support and stress in the private space of the home. Finally, the report discusses the possible solutions to the pressure and stresses of breastfeeding in public and private space, namely activism and public health policy reform respectively. The issues and challenges raised throughout the research for a breastfeeding mother emerged from in-depth, semi-structured interviews about the lived experiences of eight women, who are currently breastfeeding or have been in the last two years. It was necessary to carry out qualitative research to secure the greatest understanding of the complexities and contradictions of real-world experiences of the participants (Valentine, 2008) during their time breastfeeding in different private and public spaces. Interviews are both a reliable and flexible form of qualitative research method due to their socially interactive nature, although this can make them unpredictable (Byrne, 2012). Although the issues of breastfeeding have traditionally been categorised as a ‘women’s issue’, the low breastfeeding rates begin to drop drastically after the six-week mark in the UK.

Woman breastfeeding in a park

I chose this idealised image for the cover of the report from an article by BBC news showing a woman breastfeeding happily and demurely in presumably public open space. The media commentary on issues such as these has a significant impact on the communities within which women feed their children and therefore impact how comfortable women feel breastfeeding or bottle feeding. Breastfeeding in public is a necessary aspect of a mother’s breastfeeding experience but with recent headlines of “breastfeeding shamers” (Mail Online, 2018) in newspapers and on our screens, the relationship between breastfeeding women and the public sphere has become increasingly complex. This was reflected in the negative encounters of the majority of participants when breastfeeding in public. These ranged from “people look at you funny,” (Helen), to people saying something negative within earshot (Emma; Helen), to members of the public directly telling a breastfeeding woman to go elsewhere (Fay).

The significant findings of this research were the major challenges faced in the private space of the home. Generally, the most stressful moments of the breastfeeding experience are concealed from public gaze in the home. Additionally, the home acts as the site of stress and decision when breastfeeding women choose to stop breastfeeding or start topping-up with formula. The major issues were found to be inconsistencies in advice, especially regarding weight gain of the baby as well as feelings of entrapment and intrusion in the home.  Although this data has been analysed from a geographical, feminist perspective, this is an issue for all that affects the physical health of the next generation and the mental health of current mothers. These women are giving their all to put into the practice the professional advice they are given, with little professional support to assist them.

I agree with the perspective of strong pro-breastfeeding women in this report who argue that the invisibility of this problem is huge, but the pressure the mother then feels to be more visible is unjust and the mother and the child’s comfort must come first.

A supportive personal network has proven crucial through this research but giving the mother time to establish breastfeeding alone with her child, without isolating her, can also not be underrated. Her emotional wellbeing is as vital as the child’s physical health, but its importance seems to dissipate after the birth. We cannot continue to expect the weight of their children to weigh on a mother’s mind emotionlessly, or struggle with physical pain silently. The encouragement of health professionals, who are also concerned for the mother’s wellbeing, may make all the difference, if this is only a text a week asking how the mother is doing. Cath’s statement of, “It’s a minefield” regarding professional breastfeeding support rings true with the majority of women’s experiences as the stresses and pressures of the pro-breastfeeding context complicates the morality of breastfeeding, as discussed by Knaak (2010).


Anderson, K. and Smith, S. (2001). Editorial: Emotional Geographies. The Royal Geographical Society (with the Institute of British Geographers), pp.7-10.

Bailey, C. and Pain, R. (2001). Geographies of infant feeding and access to primary health-care. Health and Social Care in the Community, 9(5), pp.309-317.

Byrne, B., (2012). ‘Qualitative interviewing’, pp. 180-192 cited in Seale. C., (2012) ‘Researching society and culture’ Sage Publications, London.

Knaak, S. (2010). Contextualising risk, constructing choice: Breastfeeding and good mothering in risk society. Health, Risk & Society, 12(4), pp.345-355.

Larsen, J., Hall, E. and Aagaard, H. (2008). Shattered expectations: when mothers’ confidence in breastfeeding is undermined – a metasynthesis. Scandinavian Journal of Caring Sciences, 22(4), pp.653-661.

Mahon-Daly, P. and Andrews, G. (2002). Liminality and breastfeeding: women negotiating space and two bodies. Health & Place, 8(2), pp.61-76.

Mail Online. (2018). ‘Woman hits out at breastfeeding shamers by nursing while naked’. 1 October, [online] Available at: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-6227941/Woman-hits-breastfeeding-shamers-nursing-naked.html [Accessed 18 Nov. 2018].

Valentine, G., (2008) ‘Living with difference: reflections on geographies of encounter’ Progress in Human Geography, 32(3) pp. 323–337.

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