Post Natal Judgementalism

Part of my “day job” involves running news searches on various topics, one of which is Post Natal Depression (PND). Doing this I noticed a cluster of stories around the relationship between PND and breastfeeding. The research by Cristina Borra et al which prompted the stories is available here in the Maternal and Child Health Journal, and suggests that PND was least prevalent in women who wanted to breastfeed and did, followed by women who had never planned to breastfeed – and most prevalent in women who had wanted to, but found they could not carry out this plan when it came to it. However what interested me particularly was the way different news sources chose to pitch the story:

“Less depression among Breastfeeding Mums” – The Western Mail
“Failing to Breastfeed may double risk of depression in Mothers” –
“Breastfeeding helps fight post-natal depression” The Irish Examiner
“Mothers who breastfeed 50% less likely to suffer from post-natal depression; Women who planned to breastfeed but couldn’t even more at risk” – Independent
“Mothers who manage to breastfeed “less likely to get post-natal depression” – The Herald
“Mums at greater risk if they do not breastfeed” – Bristol Post
“Successful breastfeeding lessens post-natal depression risk” Belfast Telegraph
Failed Breastfeeding raises risk of depression – Daily Telegraph
“Breast feed link to blues / Breast-feeding link to happy hormones” Daily Mirror
“Mums choosing not to breastfeed twice as likely to get depression” Daily Mail

Some of the language there is very interesting. I think i’ll give the independent the gold star for balance / clarity, and Daily Mail the wooden spoon, though the Telegraph isn’t far behind. I stress here I’m talking about headlines. The full articles may be models of balance and background information – but headlines are absorbed by all, and the words chosen for them have power. This is where stigma and prejudice are written largest in our society, in bold print letters often three inches high.
Whether or not you breastfeed a child is dependent on many factors – and most responsible mothers / parents will weigh all the pros and cons before deciding whether they intend to try to breastfeed, and for how long. And for those who decide to try – and find it is for whatever reason not possible for them to do this – there is inevitably frustration and disappointment. However – what is unlikely to help mother or baby in this circumstance is judgmental and patronising attitudes from society. Society which has such a messed up attitude towards breastfeeding in any case – raising the breast fed baby as the epitome of all that is good, healthy, and pure – yet holding their stomachs in horror and disgust should a woman actually deign to try and feed her child in a public place, however discretely.

Most interesting of all – is the Daily Mail headline – “Mum’s choosing not to breastfeed” – they highlight that there seems to be a correlation between not breastfeeding and increased risk of PND. What they don’t make clear there is that there is an even stronger correlation for those women who “choose” to breastfeed, but cannot continue. They suggest a woman’s choice not to breastfeed is going to increase her risk of PND, whereas in some cases it will in fact be “choosing” to try and breastfeed in the first place which opens them to even greater risk. A woman feeling guilty about the choice not to breastfeed (for whatever reasons – I was going to say “valid reasons” – but to be honest no one should feel forced to do something with their body they are not comfortable with for any reason) may see that and think, well, if I breastfeed after all, I’ll be fine. Which is clearly not necessarily the case. People should be made aware of the risks and the benefits, to both mother and baby, and allowed to come to their own conclusions about what is right for them and their family.

What motivates the decision to say the glass is half empty, or half full? 50% less likely, for one option is 50% more likely for another. But each phrasing gives a different message. It’s slight, but saying you are 50% less likely to suffer PND if you breastfeed, has a more positive slant, you are reducing your risk by engaging in this activity. 50% more, means you are increasing your risk by not doing this. Which may be true, but without the added information that your risk is even higher if you try and can’t – you are effectively pushing the message that the way to reduce risk is to breastfeed. It’s important to have the full picture, the full range of pros and cons, in order to make an informed decision. The most valuable message to women is perhaps, really look into this carefully and be prepared, and have support for if you decide to try and it doesn’t work out – because you might find that really hard. But surprisingly few outlets decide to highlight that part of the research in their top message.

Using language of success / failure is heavily loaded – just as in discussions of suicide. Someone does, or doesn’t feed their baby from the breast. If someone has wanted to be able to, then clearly they will be disappointed that their plan didn’t pan out – but they shouldn’t be made to feel a failure, less of a woman, or any worse of a mother because of it. So long as you find the right way to make sure your baby is well nourished, and cared for, then you are doing your job. Don’t let anyone else’s ignorant and judgmental language or attitudes tell you otherwise.

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