Most People Have Bias Against Breastfeeding Mothers


Japanese Breastfeeding 1800Sometimes, I think I sing the praises of breastfeeding too loudly. After all, everyone I know prefers breastfeeding, even the ones who ended up formula-feeding or supplementing (like me). Every time I do a post like this, there are 900 pro-breastfeeding “lactivists” (like me!) who get more and more starry-eyed and evangelical as the comment-list grows longer, with a few people saying things like “but sometimes you CAN’T breastfeed!” and a few of “us” saying, “Fine, but ZOMG BOOBAGE YAY!!!”

So I think, “Meh, maybe I should tone it down.” But then I see that outside of my little mommy-bubble, the wider world still finds breastfeeding moms disgusting, weird, and even dumb. Seriously.

So I’m sticking with my song, and it’s about to get loud.

Social scientists have proven, in the past, that perceptions of women change when we become moms. For instance, mothers who work -- especially ones who work because they have to, out of financial necessity -- are judged more harshly, considered “bad moms,” than stay-at-home moms.

There are other perceptions that you would think would work in our favor -- for instance, moms are considered kinder and warmer. But they are also considered less competent. This is backed up by a study called called "Spoiled Milk." Psychologists call this “paternalistic prejudice,” and not for nothing, but every time we complain about “placenta brain” or any kind of absent-mindedness, we’re feeding into it. (Even when it feels true!) This is why I try to keep this kind of complaining to myself. I had a boss once who would loudly joke in meetings about how tired I looked when I was pregnant. I was puffy, not tired, but you can’t argue with your boss.

Are you hearing me, lactivists? Breastfeeding mothers were perceived as less competent than non-breastfeeding women. Incompetent and emotionally cold. The scientists aren’t sure why, but they think it might be that breastfeeding women are perceived as only nurturing to their babies, and cold to anyone else (like, say, their husbands). We are also thought to be more aggressive.

These perceptions came from both men and women -- it wasn’t just men who subconsciously devalue breastfeeding moms. And nobody had to be seen breastfeeding for this to be the case, either. In all three studies, the breastfeeding was mentioned, but not done in front of the person being tested.

These deeply-held negative feelings toward breastfeeding moms have a serious effect on society. The researchers cite a lot of studies that just break my heart -- for instance, in one, women who were asked why they didn’t breastfeed worried that it would make them less sexy, and therefore less valuable as a woman. Working moms fret that asking for time to breastfeed or a place to pump will stop them from getting ahead in the workplace.

So what can we do? Just knowing this bias exists is a big help, the researchers say, because when we feel crappy (about looking sloppy or feeling cow-like or just generally feeling no-reason blue), we can give ourselves a pep talk, calling out the bias that might be making us feel rotten.

And we can continue to praise breastfeeding and breastfeeders to the skies. This is a good thing we’re doing. We’re still women, whether we look like Angelina Jolie or not. There are many ways to look and feel sexy. And we can still juggle myriad tasks when we’re mothering.

Do you feel like people think less of you, or patronize you, because you breastfeed? Have you seen this bias in action?

Image via cea/Flickr



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Stephanie Bressan

Oh Amy - I love how you reference the part of the study that says "breastfeeding Mums are considered more agressive" - it's one of the fascinating side effects isn't it?? How ironic that by nurturing our babies we are considered more agressive!!
My hope is that the more we normalise it in our western society, the more Mums will feel supported to make their own choices without judgement now matter what parenting decisions they make!!

lalasha lalasha

I am so glad to say that no one has been so stupid as to open their mouth to me and say something rude about breast feeding but I also ready the study about thinking less about breastfeeding women both emotionally and in intelligence. It offends me to the core. Mostly because I know it not to be true the staticist are pretty clear the well educated women tend to breastfeed more then uneducated or under educated counterparts. not saying women who bottle feed are actually incompatent just that neither should be used as a mesure of intelligence.

Tee Addison

I have not seen this bias.  But when I did work out side the home, I was in day care.  I am a fourth gerneration breastfeeder.  I would go places with 5 brothers on the look out for someone who might possibly be disapproving to stare down.  Or my in-laws who plopped one on either side of me on a curb in Disney World when the tired cranky momma/baby pair were not going to make it to the quiet, air-conditioned nursing room with cushioned rocking chairs.  My dad always insisted sexism arose from a man's envy that women can give birth and nurture life. 


ChicH... ChicHippie

Usually when people find out I breastfeed they just shoot me a list of reasons why they couldn't. Breastfeeding is not too common in my area so I'm sure people think things but they haven't said anything. Never get dirty looks when I feed him out and about though. That's been refreshing!

tej724 tej724

I have actually encountered this sentiment. My MIL actually freaked out when she found out I was still nursing my son who was 2. She told me how disgusting it was. I explained to her that the WHO recommends breastfeeding for the first two years and that breast feeding reduces the chances of breast cancer. Since my Mom had just had a masectomy it seemed like a smart thing to do to continue to breastfeed. My MIL actually said she would rather have breast cancer than have to see me breastfeed my toddler. Incompetent? As for the aggressive part, I would say we are. I will go against the formula feeding is easier and better thinking  women anyday on what is best for my child. Making the commitment to breastfeed, following through with it, and taking the slack from the public isn't an easy task for any Mom. A lot of moms who breastfeed are at home when they do so either on leave or stay at home moms. I wonder if this plays into the incompetent view. Since stay at home moms are seen in a negative light by many working moms and dads. Sounds like a huge public education campaign is in order on breastfeeding and its benefits. 

Alana Lewis

No wonder we feel more agressive!  I have NEVER had to defend anything in my life like I have to defend my choice to breast feed!  And why?? It is the most natural, normal, healthy thing in the entire world, right up there with making a baby!  Yet, people, especially those who are supposed to be closest to me, constantly question my decision to breastfeed, or make remarks about it.  One of my favorites is the worry that my son, only 25 weeks, will be a dependant, sooky Mama's boy!  I get eye rolls when I seek out another room to nurse in, because DS is easily distracted.  It has been suggested that bottle feeding would be so much easier, and perhaps I could get some housework done if someone else could feed him!  I have even been called a "Meal Ticket"!!!!  So YES, I definitely feel a little patronized, and looked down on for breastfeeding, but I also feel extremely proud of my choice, and very valuable that I am the one providing the best possible start for my son!

opals... opalspirit

I have felt this bias and been told that my letting my 28 month old go back to the breast instead of being induced was tantamount to child abuse. I have had a Mother raise her eyebrows and be shocked because I was carrying my napping/nursing three year old into pick up my older daughter from Kindergarten. I have been told that nursing past the first year would make my child be too involved in my ego forces from Steiner dogma people. I know in my heart that breastfeeding until natural weaning was best for my children. It was best for my family and my daughters are just fine although overly influenced by society and all the divisiveness in it. They are now 18 and 20 and I have raised them to love the miracle that is their body and the forces of life within them. your breatsa re giving forth the fountain of youth's milk. If you are breastfed, ypou will be so much better in so many ways. It is impossible to list them all here. Why can't we all just be mammals together without al this competition and judgement energy? Dolphins have it so right. Live in joy and playfulness in the fullness of life while nursing your babies! And look how big their brains are!

Brandy Kincaid

After my first daughter was born, I was ebf'ing, while my husband stayed home with our daughter. When she was 6 months old, I was written up and "talked to" by HR because of a whole host of reasons, but the big one was that I was "away from my desk too much" (the implication? that my pumping three times a day was taking away from my presence at my job). Ironically, my desk was right next to the door all the smokers used to go out to take their "breaks", and Each and every one of them were out there more than I was gone from my desk.
I was told I could either "try to improve" over the next six weeks, or I could leave and take a 6-week severance package.
Knowing I was not going to stop pumping to sit at my desk more, I quit.

Billie Jo Evans

Hey, I've had to fight to breastfeed period. My family thought it was totally gross. But their small minded people.

beanz... beanzgirl

It saddens me to know that people out there view us, bfing moms, like this!  How does caring for our child in the best way possible mean we're cold, heartless, and aggressive?!  Yes I'm gonna get defensive when someone gives me slack about bfing anywhere but I think anyone if they were being criticized for the way they take care of their child would become defensive as well.  I've definitely dealt with quite a few stares and comments from the uninformed and I try to be nice and civil about it because usually they just don't know any better and are following societies misinformation but it can be hard at times.

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