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

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


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 (US)
Pages (from-to)178-185
Number of pages8
JournalSocial Science and Medicine
StatePublished - Nov 1 2016


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

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Health(social science)
  • History and Philosophy of Science

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