Previous awareness of breastfeeding

Most of the women whom we interviewed knew very little about breastfeeding at the time that they became pregnant except that many thought it would be a nice experience as they had seen other women who seemed to be enjoying it. They often came from families where bottle feeding was the norm and were a bottle fed generation themselves, since it was unfashionable to breastfeed at that time. It is interesting, then, that many of them had a strong desire to breastfeed because of the benefits that they thought breastfeeding had for them and their baby. Many women also thought that breastfeeding was the natural way to feed a baby. However, some embarked upon breastfeeding with “unrealistic expectations”.


She grew up in a bottle feeding family environment but saw friends from work breastfeeding.

She grew up in a bottle feeding family environment but saw friends from work breastfeeding.

Age at interview: 38
Sex: Female
Well I wasn't a breastfed baby [laughs], I was bottle fed and, you know, and my mother always told me, and I think it's a traditional thing that got passed around in the sixties was, 'Oh I couldn't breastfeed you I didn't have any milk'. So, you know, that was just the attitude that she had experienced and I never grew up in a family environment where breastfeeding or seeing women breastfeed at all, I just think it was just something that I had explored myself or something that I just felt was the right thing to do, I think possibly when I went to work and I was mixing with other women who had gone off on maternity leave and they were talking about the fact that they were breastfeeding that I thought, 'Well yes I'm pretty sure that's something that I would do too' but I didn't come from a background or a family where breastfeeding was a norm.

Friends? Have you seen friends doing it?

Yes friends at work but as a child I hadn't experienced and even my mother's friends it was a bottle fed generation I think to be quite honest. So I'd say friends at work who had delivered a lot earlier than me because, you know, I was thirty-eight years old when I gave birth to [son] so, a lot of friends who had their babies in their late twenties and early thirties at work I was aware that they were breastfeeding and had seen that.


Her mother bottle fed but she had a strong desire to breastfeed because of the benefits for her...

Her mother bottle fed but she had a strong desire to breastfeed because of the benefits for her...

Age at interview: 28
Sex: Female
So can you tell me about your experiences of breastfeeding?

I was very keen to breastfeed, because I knew all the health benefits for my daughter as well as the health benefits for me I've got a very strong family history of breast and ovarian cancer so I was very keen to breastfeed for that reason as well, so I went into it with quite a positive attitude. And at first it all seemed to be going very well, the first twenty-four hours seemed absolutely fine and I thought this isn't as difficult as anyone makes it sound but then once we came home and she was a bit more awake and feeding more often that's when the trouble really started and, and I had very, very painful nipples, cracked and bleeding nipples and it was just agony to breastfeed. And so the first, I'd say the first six to eight weeks really were really quite hard. 

Right, can you tell me what you knew about breastfeeding before you had your baby?

I, about, I knew about the, the health benefits of breastfeeding so I knew that it was better for the baby, baby's immune system to help her fight infection, that it had all the right blend of nutrients and the right amount of water and all that sort of thing, and I knew that it was good for bonding, and I knew that it was much more convenient and cheaper and, easily packaged and portable, and I knew that it was good for mums in, that it reduced risks of cancer and osteoporosis and so on. I didn't really appreciate how hard it would be and how much of a skill it was to, to breastfeed, I, I'd figured that you know people are mammals and mammals have been around for millions of years and they've all had no problems breastfeeding so why should I have any problems I, I thought it was, it just must be natural and it must be very easy and I was very wrong.

Where did you get that information?

I guess it was more of a perception because the women that I'd seen breastfeeding, or the women that I'd seen in caf's or breastfeeding in supermarkets they all looked so comfortable and happy and I thought well it can't be that hard really. Not very many people in my family have breastfed, I just haven't been around people the right age to be breastfeeding and I think out of my female relatives a lot of them bottle fed rather than breastfed so there wasn't much family input but it was just sort of, the women that I'd seen out in public and they seemed to be very happy with it so I thought it must be easy.

Right, so your mother didn't breastfeed?

I think she tried, to breastfeed me, my mother tried to breast me, feed me for the first few weeks but she'd had problems that I think, she thought that she didn't have enough milk and therefore she moved me on to formula very quickly.

Mm-hm, what country was that in?

I was born in Sri Lanka, and that's where my mum moved from breastfeeding to bottle feeding.


She had never seen anyone breastfeed and was very unsure about it to begin with but now she is...

She had never seen anyone breastfeed and was very unsure about it to begin with but now she is...

Age at interview: 29
Sex: Female

Can you think back to when you were pregnant, what made you decide to breastfeed?

I went, well the antenatal class I went to, because to be honest before, before I fell pregnant I wasn't overly high on the idea of breastfeeding, I wasn't quite sure, I know it's a natural thing but there was something about it that just made me think that [laughs], that just made me think that it was a bit weird, it's hard to describe really because it wasn't like I thought it was perverse or anything in that respect, but I just, it just didn't seem normal although I know it was nature's way of obviously feeding your baby, but when I was explaining this to the antenatal group, but then I was never very maternal even when I was pregnant, so I don't know if that was it maybe I just hadn't clicked into the mother baby side of it. But when I was talking to them and they were saying how nice it is to breastfeed and how good it is for the, for them, obviously I want the best for him so I thought well I'll try and see how I go [laughs].

So what was your experience prior to getting pregnant of breastfeeding?

I hadn't, I didn't know anybody that's ever done it, my mum breastfed me and that was all I knew [laughs] I hadn't seen anybody else do it, all my friends that had babies had always bottled, so I think that's why I wasn't quite sure about it, because I'd never seen anybody do it, I'd never known anybody do it other than my mum obviously [laughs] that was twenty-nine years ago, so it was a, a long time.

Did you talk to her about it?

No not until I went to antenatal and it was brought up by them. Yeah so until I'd been to antenatal and it, it had been brought up, because I'd never really, even whilst pregnant until I went to antenatal I'd never thought, contemplated, thought about it. Is that okay? [laughs].

So you decided that you might give it a go?

Yeah [laughs].


And then obviously when I was in, I don't know it just seemed more natural than I ever thought it would do. And then when it was a case of the fact that he wouldn't take, latch on, and I just thought, 'Well it's natural for you to latch on, why aren't you latching on?' [laughs], you know, it's, I'd completely, my idea of it had completely done a like a flip turn on itself and it was just, it just felt so right that, that was the way nature had intended you to feed so why aren't you feeding that way [laughs]? So I just persevered and, and now I'm really glad I did.

So you're really glad you did?

Yeah, really glad I did.


Why? It's, it's nice contact with, between us, it's obviously doing him good because obviously it's got all the best things, breastmilk's supposed to be the best. He's putting on weight so I know that it's working, it's got enough fat and all the nutrients that he needs in it so, and while, while it's supposed to be the best brain food or something [laughs] so I might as well give him the best start I can [laughs].

Many of the women said that their own mothers had told them of their experiences, including their mothers' inability to breastfeed their babies, often because of the unsupportive and inappropriate environment at the time. Many of these older women had attempted to breastfeed on a four-hourly schedule and gave up because of an unsettled baby who failed to gain weight at the required rate, which they thought was due to not having enough milk. The older women sometimes unwittingly passed on these seeds of doubt to their daughters or made discouraging remarks that impacted upon the women's understanding of breastfeeding. 


As a teenager, she had seen her older sister breastfeeding but had no information and unrealistic...

As a teenager, she had seen her older sister breastfeeding but had no information and unrealistic...

Age at interview: 36
Sex: Female
When I found out I was pregnant I knew very little about breastfeeding but I told my midwife that I wanted to breastfeed.


I don't know, I really didn't have any information about it, no expectations of it. I have a sister who's ten years old than me who breastfed both her children. So I were a little bit old when this happened and, probably I think I were round about thirteen when she breastfed her first child, so I was aware of it but at that age it didn't have much impact on me so whether that had a bearing on my decision I'm not sure but at me booking appointment when me midwife when they said, 'How do you intend to feed?' I said, 'Breastfeed?', through my pregnancy I didn't look into it, I didn't read up on it, I knew very, very, very little about it, so when it came to actually having me daughter I went into it with quite sort of unrealistic expectations I'd say of what a baby would do after birth. But yeah I never felt, I'd read about everything to do with pregnancy and childbirth but not really anything about what happened after and that included feeding.

So what do you think those unrealistic expectations were, and what was the reality in comparison?                         

The unrealistic expectation was that a baby would feed by however means and then go to sleep, probably for around about four hours, and then wake up, want another feed, be changed, and go back to sleep and. This is what I, sort of, this is with what I'd read that I picked up, this is what happened, this is what normal babies did. But, actually it were nothing at all like that. She wanted to be held which I couldn't understand because I thought babies were put down to sleep, but she wanted to sleep being held by me and she didn't feed every four hours she fed quite a lot more than that, she wasn't happy to just be left while I got on with everything else that I thought that I'd be doing, and really I was overwhelmed by how it took over, took over me whole life, I'd not expected it to be like that. I thought it would be all flowery and baby talc and you know that sort of perception of motherhood and it wasn't liked that at all.

Where do you think that perception came from?

Media, I think that the perception lots of people have comes from media. We read books which are, are good in one sense, you sort of, you know, there's quite a lot of useful information in them but also nobody ever tells you about the realities of it, and, that to me is why a lot of women afterwards feel sort of things are going wrong and it's not normal, because they believe that what's said in these books, you know, lots, lots of different magazines, television is another one. On television you see babies in sort of drama, soap opera, this sort of thing. They don't portray it in the way that it actually is, how much it does change your life, so I think a lot of people unless they've sort of grown up with lots of babies around them and, and are aware I think, a lot people pick it up from media, yeah.

Do you think some people think that having a baby is a bit of a hiccough in their lives and then they'll get back to normal?

Yeah I think with your first child you do feel that this is an event that's going to take place in nine months and then after the big event which you focus on when you're pregnant so that's what you're actually looking to and you give not that much thought about what's going to happen after, that yeah you just assume that things,

On the other hand, some women came from strong breastfeeding backgrounds and just assumed that they would also breastfeed. Many, but not all, of them had seen female relatives and/or friends breastfeeding in Britain and abroad. They said that seeing other women breastfeeding was useful but several wished that they had taken more notice. Some women had discussed breastfeeding with their mothers, sisters, female relatives and friends. Some were aware of strong cultural expectations that they breastfeed (see 'Cultural aspects of breastfeeding').


She didn't know much about breastfeeding at all, although her mother had breastfed all of her...

She didn't know much about breastfeeding at all, although her mother had breastfed all of her...

Age at interview: 30
Sex: Female
While I was pregnant I didn't really know much about breastfeeding at all, nothing really. I don't really know very many people who've breastfed except for my mum.

So your mother breastfed?

Yeah she, I was breastfed for three years.

Really? How many children, how many siblings do you have?

I have two brothers and four sisters.

And were they all breastfed?

All except for the last one and that was because my mum got diabetes.

And all for a very long period like you?

Yes, yeah

Was that here in this country?

Some of them, and some of them were fed, some of them were fed in Pakistan


Well they were born in Pakistan so breastfed in Pakistan and some of them in England.

And so it was that, do you think the norm in Pakistan was to breastfeed for three years or perhaps longer?

It was. I'm not sure if it is now.

Why do you say that?

I don't really know very many people who've breastfed, and that's referring to people in Pakistan as well.

So do you think that fewer and fewer people are breastfeeding in Pakistan?

I couldn't really say.

Or was your mother unusual in her time?

No, no she wasn't unusual.

So that was the normal thing to do?

It was the normal thing at that time. I couldn't say what it is now. Yeah it was definitely the norm at that time.


Her mother combined breastfeeding with bottle feeding and she saw her sister-in-law breastfeeding...

Her mother combined breastfeeding with bottle feeding and she saw her sister-in-law breastfeeding...

Age at interview: 35
Sex: Female
When I was pregnant I was, it was my first pregnancy and I was only working part time so I had a lot of time to read, and I did quite a lot of that, I think I bought a couple of books that had quite good sections on breastfeeding and I decided then that it was the thing to do. I was very determined to do it, and it seemed very natural to be doing it, you know, our body knows what to do and I really wanted to do it. I was, I mean the advice is pretty clear that it's probably the best thing to do in terms of immunity and, and also in terms of the relationship you have with your child [laughs], so I decided then pretty early in my pregnancy that that's what I wanted to do. And, however, I mean I suppose I was slightly influenced by the fact that in my family, the my auntie's and my brother had a child very early so I was an auntie at sixteen years old and I saw my sister-in-law breastfeeding her four children so that was, I suppose, you know, although I didn't register it at the time it was probably quite a big influence on me because she was very comfortable with it and she, she actually carried on giving milk to the milk bank for quite a long time after her children had stopped breastfeeding, so she was very, she was a breastfeeder [laughs] a mother earth [laughs].

Was this in France?

That was in France yes, that's right.

Did your mother breastfeed you do you know?

My mother, breastfed, I think all of us but not totally breastfeeding she combined it with a bottle because she was working so she had to combine the two, but I think she, she breastfed us yes she did, for a period of time, I wouldn't be able to tell you for how long, she had four children and she was a nurse and she was a trained maternity nurse so I think she knew what to do in terms of combining the, you know, the formula milk with the breastmilk.

A few women talked about being involved in caring for their younger siblings, including bottle feeding them, and then eventually went on to breastfeed their own children. Others remember seeing their siblings being breastfed.


She helped to bottle feed her two younger sisters. She did not know a lot about breastfeeding but...

She helped to bottle feed her two younger sisters. She did not know a lot about breastfeeding but...

Age at interview: 31
Sex: Female

Right, can you think back to when you were pregnant?

I can try yeah, alright.

What did you know about breastfeeding at that stage?

Breastfeeding during pregnancy? Not a lot to begin with but, you know, through the literature given to me by our midwife and the antenatal classes and having a look around on the websites and an older sister who had two children I got, you know, information that way.

So you'd seen your older sister breastfeeding?

Yes, yeah.

What about your mother did she breastfeed?

No she didn't breastfeed myself or my older sister, I've got two younger sisters as well, they were bottle fed as well, I'd, I remember helping to feed them but no, no breastfeeding, yeah.

So you haven't talked, have you talked to your mother much about breastfeeding?

Not really, no, I mean, you know, she was there for some advice and, you know, support to begin with but now it's, I suppose it's just become second nature now so.


She saw relative's breastfeeding and assumed that she would too. She remembers her younger...

She saw relative's breastfeeding and assumed that she would too. She remembers her younger...

Age at interview: 31
Sex: Female
Can you think back to prior to your daughter's birth, what did you know about breastfeeding at that time?

Just from personal, well from experience of my mother and relatives who had all breastfed, just assumed it would be easy and that's what I would do'

So you come'

'and that.

'from a breastfeeding family?

Yeah uh-huh, and I suppose I had read a lot about how important breastfeeding is I did a lot of research in mental illness and a lot of the studies that I had read were to do with neuronal development developments so I knew about prostaglandins and the importance of breastfeeding so I was determined that I would breastfeed anyway.

When you say from your mother did you see her feeding siblings?

Yeah my, she fed, I saw her feeding my youngest brother.

Right, and are you the oldest in the family?


Yeah, do you remember much about that?

About her breastfeeding? Yeah I remember her feeding him I remember seeing her feeding him, I remember when she was pregnant with him and then I remember seeing her feeding him, yeah and it being a nice experience, yes yeah.

Have you talked to her about breastfeeding?

Yeah all the time, yeah, when we were when I was starting to breastfeed my daughter and just my experiences all along the way as with all aspects of the babies I sort of spoke to my mum about them yeah, yeah.

And you said aunts as well, you've seen aunts doing it?

Just, I can't remember exactly who in the family, but I just remember always being surrounded by someone, more often breastfeeders than bottlefeeders, just always being aware that was.

So you always assumed that you would breastfeed?

Yeah, yeah.

Yeah you didn't have to make a conscious decision about it?

No I just always assumed that I would and I was at, maybe anti-bottle feeding'




Just because I always thought 'well breast is best' and for all the reasons that it was the bonding and, my mum had also always spoken about how she felt she really missed out with me because I was born early and she, I was in an incubator for about six months so she couldn't breastfeed me and she found that really difficult so I don't know if that, you know, would've probably made me think, 'Well I really want to do that for the bonding and all the rest of it'.

A couple of women mentioned being aware of breastfeeding from a political perspective, one because her own family had been involved in the boycott of Nestlé products because the company promoted the unethical use of infant formula in developing countries and the other because she was a member of Baby Milk Action, a breastfeeding advocacy group (see 'Reflecting upon Breastfeeding' section).

Last reviewed November 2018.
Last updated November 2011


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