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A Critical Look at Breastfeeding Discourse and its Meaning-Making Work for Mothers

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The decision to breastfeed or formula feed is a largely contested one by mothers, healthcare administrators, and politicians. Yet, research suggests that both breastfeeding and formula feeding are healthy ways to provide nourishment to newborn babies. Considering this, I sought to analyze why this decision is such a site of contestation. I did this by critically analyzing the meaning-making work that breastfeeding discourse had for women during the historically significant moment when Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and New York implemented measures limiting mothers’ ability to access formula in hospitals between 2011 and 2012. I identified and analyzed recurring themes in blog posts and articles on news websites that highlighted how both the healthcare administrators and politicians in favor of these pro-breastfeeding efforts and their critics discussed breastfeeding and formula feeding. I found that the pro-breastfeeding politicians and healthcare administrators did not meaningfully center the desires of the very bodies being discussed- the mothers. They also positioned formula feeding mothers as immoral and lazy. I argue that both of these sentiments discursively dehumanize mothers. Even whilst the critics provided critiques that meaningfully recentered mothers’ desires, they also made discursive choices that epitomized breastfeeding in ways that supported the pro-breastfeeding discourse that dehumanized women. This research is of significance because it helps us understand that institutional pro-breastfeeding efforts are less about the nourishment of infants and more-so about disregarding the desires that mothers have for their bodies, life experiences, and children, as well as placing moral judgements onto mothers in ways that dehumanize them.

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  • 06/04/2019
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