Contested moral landscapes: Negotiating breastfeeding stigma in breastmilk sharing, nighttime breastfeeding, and long-term breastfeeding in the U.S. and the U.K.

Cecilia Tomori*, Aunchalee E.L. Palmquist, Sally Dowling

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

53 Citations (Scopus)


Recent public health breastfeeding promotion efforts have galvanized media debates about breastfeeding in wealthy, Euro-American settings. A growing body of research demonstrates that while breastfeeding is increasingly viewed as important for health, mothers continue to face significant structural and cultural barriers. Concerns have been raised about the moralizing aspects of breastfeeding promotion and its detrimental effects on those who do not breastfeed. Far less, however, is known about the moral experiences of those who pursue breastfeeding. This study draws together research on breastmilk sharing (2012–2016) and nighttime breastfeeding from the U.S. (2006–2009), and long-term breastfeeding from the U.K. (2008–2009) from three ethnographic projects to address this gap. Comparative analysis of these cases reveals that while breastfeeding is considered ideal infant nutrition, aspects of its practice continue to evoke physical and moral danger, even when these practices are implemented to facilitate breastfeeding. Breastmilk sharing to maintain exclusive breastmilk feeding, nighttime breastfeeding and bedsharing to facilitate breastfeeding, and breastfeeding beyond the accepted duration are considered unnecessary, unhealthy, harmful or even deadly. The sexual connotations of breastfeeding enhance the morally threatening qualities of these practices. The cessation of these “problematic” breastfeeding practices and their replacement with formula-feeding or other foods is viewed as a way to restore the normative social and moral order. Mothers manage the stigmatization of these breastfeeding practices through secrecy and avoidance of health professionals and others who might judge them, often leading to social isolation. Our findings highlight the divide between perceptions of the ideal of breastfeeding and its actual practice and point to the contested moral status of breastfeeding in the U.S. and the U.K. Further comparative ethnographic research is needed to illuminate the lived social and moral experiences of breastfeeding, and inform initiatives to normalize and support its practice without stigmatizing parents who do not breastfeed.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)178-185
Number of pages8
JournalSocial Science and Medicine
Early online date10 Sept 2016
Publication statusPublished - 22 Sept 2016

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
AP's study was supported by a Wenner-Gren Post PhD grant and an Elon University Faculty Research and Development grant. CT's research was supported by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation ; the Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award Training Grant from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Development ( T32 HD007339 & T32 HD007339-23 ) awarded by the Population Studies Center of the Institute for Social Research, University of Michigan ; and the Rackham Graduate School , the Department of Anthropology, and the Center for the Education of Women at the University of Michigan. SD's study was supported by a PhD Studentship from the Faculty of Health and Applied Sciences, University of the West of England , Bristol. The funding sources had no involvement in the design, data collection, analysis, or interpretation of the research, or the publication process. We are deeply grateful to our study participants for making our research possible.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2016 Elsevier Ltd


  • Bedsharing
  • Breastfeeding
  • Breastmilk sharing
  • Long-term breastfeeding
  • Nighttime breastfeeding
  • Stigma
  • United Kingdom
  • United States


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