Leeming, Dawn (2016) Managing the dynamics of shame in breastfeeding support. In: Social experiences of breastfeeding: building bridges between research and policy: ESRC seminar series, 2nd March 2016, University of Cardiff, Wales. (Unpublished)

Breastfeeding promotion has long grappled with the issue of maternal guilt. However, recently attention has turned instead to shame, as a related but more problematic emotional response. Although women may talk about feeling shamed for breastfeeding in front of others, some also talk about shame-related feelings as a consequence of not breastfeeding or struggling to establish breastfeeding. Research suggests that cultural representations of breastfeeding can be taken up as if they imply that the ‘good mother’ not only breastfeeds but also has a maternal body which sustains her child with ease. Therefore, where breastfeeding difficulties are experienced, these can be taken by women to signify inadequacy or failure as a mother and woman, particularly if there is a sense of exposure before expert surveillance.
The purpose of this presentation is to explore the usefulness of interpersonal theories of shame, shame avoidance and shame management for understanding relationships between women who struggle to establish breastfeeding and those who support them. Drawing on Gilbert’s (2003) and Scheff’s (1995) approaches to shame, which emphasise the sense of a devalued position in relation to others, I consider how shame and shame avoidance might sometimes shape the dynamics of relationships between breastfeeding women and healthcare providers in ways that are counterproductive for both breastfeeding and the wellbeing of breastfeeding women. However, I also explore what the emerging literature on shame management and resilience (e.g. Brown, 2006; Leeming & Boyle, 2013; van Vliet, 2008) might have to offer with regard to countering shame when supporting breastfeeding mothers by promoting meaningful connection, validation of women and contextualisation of breastfeeding difficulties.

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