Feeding babies and children

What children consume in their early years – breast or formula milk, organic or ‘junk’ food – is often a topic of heated public debate. Childhood eating has become powerfully linked in the social and political imagination to wider problems such as obesity, cancers and even intellectual development and emotional health. Such problems are now routinely described in catastrophic terms. These days, questioning the validity of crusades to shake up apparently complacent adults and compel them to change the dietary habits of the young, risks widespread opprobrium.

In the mid-2000s, both Ellie Lee, Frank Furedi and Charlotte Faircloth were involved in research projects about this very necessary, but ostensibly mundane, aspect of being a parent. We spent time interviewing and talking with mothers, reading and reviewing existing research about this topic from disciplines including sociology, political science, anthropology, philosophy, and history, and carried out desk research about the history of infant feeding policy.

As we wrote up and published our work (for example, Faircloth, 2010, 2013; Lee, 2007a, 2007b, 2008, 2011; Lee and Bristow, 2009), we also developed an active dialogue with colleagues doing similar research to our own (Blum, 1999; Knaak, 2005, 2010; Kukla, 2005, 2006, 2008; Murphy, 1999, 2000, 2003, 2004; Wall, 2001; Wolf, 2007, 2011) and discussed our research in many non-academic forums (with healthcare providers, advocacy groups, in newspapers, and in TV and radio debates, which you can see more of here).

As historical studies indicate, how babies are fed has long been construed as a matter of public debate and public interest (Kukla, 2005; Murphy, 2003). Yet as the accounts from our informants show, public surveillance and monitoring of maternal decisions has certainly not receded, regardless of drastic declines in infant mortality and morbidity associated with very early childhood in the past. This monitoring is stronger than ever, and as we indicate in other parts of this book, has become connected to an ever-widening set of claims about children’s ‘success’ or ‘failure’.

Our research also shows how even ostensibly ‘doing the right thing’ does not offer protection from monitoring and surveillance. Instead, accounts bring to light something of the way the mantra that characterizes official views – that ‘breast is best’ – works itself out. However breastfeeding (especially if a mother decides to carry on giving her baby milk this way for a lengthy time) can also be viewed as a matter of concern for others (Faircloth, 2013). Far from being an ‘expert-free cultural space’, this way of feeding a baby is medicalized and professionalized (Avishai, 2011, p. 27). Indeed a whole new professional sector, that of the ‘lactation specialist’, has emerged over the past 40 years, with its own publications, ‘academic’ journals, and claims to be heard by both policymakers and parents, on the grounds that there is such a thing as breastfeeding expertise.

As well as panels at our conferences, in 2011 we organised the event, Feeding Children in the new Parenting Culture to explore these themes further, featuring contributions from Professor Elizabeth Murphy (University of Leicester), Dr. Mary Fewtrell (ICH) and Professor Joan Wolf (Texas A&M University). In 2013, we were delighted to welcome Joan back, as our first international Visitor to the Centre for Parenting Culture Studies. During her stay Joan gave an Open Lecture which you can see here. The questions and discussion are posted here. You can read coverage of Joan’s lecture in spiked, The Observer, The Independent The New Statesman and Mumsnet. There was also further coverage in: ‘The witches of breast milk need to back off’, Live chat, ‘Is breast best?’ and  ‘Breast is best. Or is it?’ (with comment by Ellie Lee) Joan’s book is now available in paperback, and the facebook page is here

Broadly speaking, the conclusions we have drawn from this research about infant feeding have informed many the central propositions of the work of CPCS as a whole. These can be summarized as follows:

• We live at a time when mothers will inevitably be informed, more or less explicitly, that they are mistaken if they think that the work of raising a child involves making straightforward decisions.

• Mothers will encounter the idea that they need to understand that what they do is far more complicated and much more important than they might imagine. Furthermore, they will receive the message that a great deal is at stake that they may not recognize when they make what seem to them to be practical, simple decisions.

• The message to mothers (and also fathers) is that the health, welfare, and success (or lack of it) of their children can be directly attributed to the decisions they make about matters like feeding their children; ‘parenting’, parents are told, is both the hardest and most important job in the world. Tomorrow depends on it.

Read on:

Follow this link for articles on this subject by CPCS associates, and this link for books. This briefing also gives a useful summary about our work in this area.