Mummy wars still persist! One of the most intense battlegrounds has to do with infant feeding, where both breastfeeders and bottle feeders can feel let down and confronted. Infant feeding is often a moralized issue, with breastfeeding being tied to beliefs about “good mothering.” Despite these beliefs, breastfeeding rates are low across the globe and postnatal mental health issues in mothers are prevalent.

Many women do not achieve their breastfeeding goals, or alternatively some women decide not to breastfeed, which can cause women in both contexts to experience emotions like shame and guilt. Additionally, many women who do breastfeed feel uncomfortable feeding in public. As a result, women who breastfeed, bottle feed, and combination feed can experience self-conscious emotions for different reasons.

Shame and guilt are self-conscious emotions. They are very similar but also different. We experience both emotions when we think we have done something wrong. However, shame is more strongly related to body and image concerns. Shame is more damaging to how we view ourselves and is closely related to feelings of stigma and feeling unworthy. Stigma can also become internalized. This can happen when we become aware of others’ negative attitudes and then we believe them ourselves.

We conducted two studies to examine how shame and guilt relate to feelings of internalized stigma and breastfeeding behaviors. We also looked at how self-esteem, self-efficacy, and social support relate to feelings of stigma. In both studies, women with babies answered questions about their breastfeeding intentions, feelings of stigma, emotions experienced when feeding their babies, and other questions.

Where Shame and Guilt Diverged

The results highlighted some unique relationships for shame and guilt with stigma and infant feeding:

  • Women who breastfed and women who formula-fed experienced similar levels of shame. Thus, shame was experienced across feeding types.
  • Women who bottle-fed experienced more guilt, and in the second study they experienced more feelings of stigma.
  • Guilt, but not shame, was related to whether women had the desire to carry on breastfeeding, that is, from 3 months to 2 years. This suggests that women experience guilt when they have not reached their breastfeeding goals and had to switch to the bottle. Thus, women feel guilt when they think about how they haven’t fed their baby in the way they intended.  
  • Both shame and guilt were related to feeling more stigmatized for one’s feeding choice.
  • Lower self-esteem was related to experiencing more stigma because of underlying feelings of shame and guilt.
  • Lower parenting self-efficacy (i.e., feelings about general parenting competency) was related to higher stigma because of shame and guilt.
  • Lower breastfeeding self-efficacy, that is, feeling that you cannot achieve your feeding goals, was related to feelings of higher stigma because of experiencing guilt, not shame.

These results suggest that guilt is more closely tied to breastfeeding choices while shame impacts more global views of oneself, e.g., parenting as a whole. In sum, shame played a role in self-esteem and parenting self-efficacy versus guilt played a role in parenting and breastfeeding self-efficacy.

Researchers and the medical community must pay attention to ways to reduce feelings of shame and guilt in mothers, as both self-conscious emotions are related to feelings of stigma, self-esteem, and self-efficacy, regardless of infant feeding type. One way to reduce these negative feelings is to make sure that positive emotions are elicited through wider support networks, as it has been shown that positive emotions can override negative experiences. Another possible avenue is to make women feel positive in other areas of parenting to boost their self-views, and hopefully as a by-product have less stress and feel less pressure from others with regard to feeding choices.

For Further Reading

Russell, P. S., Birtel, M. D., Smith, D. M., Hart, K., & Newman, R. (2021). Infant feeding and internalized stigma: The role of guilt and shame. Journal of Applied Social Psychology.

Russell, P. S., Smith, D. M., Birtel, M. D., Hart, K. H., & Golding, S. E. (2021). The role of emotions and injunctive norms in breastfeeding: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Health Psychology Review. doi: 10.1080/17437199.2021.1893783

Sophie Russell is a Lecturer in Social Psychology at University of Surrey. She conducts research on moral emotions and how they impact our daily lives.