In a small study, published in Families Relationships and Society, researchers interviewed mother-grandmother pairs and found that community surveillance of pregnant women and infant feeding had significantly increased between the generations, with many of the new mothers reporting feeling watched, evaluated and judged.
Some also reported experiences of being questioned by strangers about their choices during pregnancy and when feeding their babies. In the most extreme cases, strangers had regulated the behaviour of pregnant women by restricting their access to food that they believed might harm the foetus.
Dr Aimee Grant, lead researcher on the study, from Cardiff University’s Centre for Trials Research, said: “Our study found that today’s mothers can be subjected to increased surveillance compared to the generation before. The mothers in our study described how this intrusive policing of lifestyle choices began in pregnancy and then continued to impact on their everyday lives, particularly through infant feeding. This observation and interference by others can result in pregnant women and new mothers performing public motherhood in ways that are highly self-aware and self-conscious, which makes it difficult to follow advice from health professionals.”
Participants reported a range of pressures to feed their babies in particular ways, including a general desire to breastfeed, as opposed to using infant formula, which came from societal knowledge and information from midwives resulting in a view that ‘breast is best’. They reported being questioned by family and strangers on their methods of infant feeding during pregnancy and whether they were going to breastfeed, with both friends and family suggesting they should.
Based on the study’s findings, Dr Grant is keen to highlight ways that the public can make it easier for pregnant women and new mums to get used to their roles. She says: “If you know someone who wants to breastfeed and needs some support, the National Breastfeeding Helpline can provide telephone support, and there is a network of breastfeeding support groups around the UK. Facebook is often the best place to find information. Other practical support includes making sure mum has had a meal, and that she has a drink and can reach it; breastfeeding is thirsty work. If you have any medical concerns, as always, contact your midwife, health visitor or GP.”