A recent study concludes that self-body image affects the likelihood of a new mother to start and continue breastfeeding their newborn. Researchers found that the problem is a particular concern for obese mothers.
Last week was World Breastfeeding Week, with a UN-backed report concluding that countries need to invest more in supporting breastfeeding mothers and their babies. Only 40 per cent of young babies are exclusively breastfed for six months, according to the report by the Global Breastfeeding Collective, which says that breastfeeding helps prevent infant deaths and supports physical and intellectual development.
“By failing to invest in breastfeeding, we are failing mothers and their babies –and paying a double price: in lost lives and in lost opportunity,” said Anthony Lake, head of UNICEF, in a statement.
In Canada, about 90 per cent of new mothers initiate breastfeeding, according to a 2012 Statistics Canada report, but that number drops down to just 24 per cent who are still exclusively breastfeeding at the six-month mark.
The reasons why mothers stop breastfeeding are many. Sociodemographic factors are part of the puzzle, as young mothers, those with a lower level of education and those who return to work within 12 weeks of giving birth are all more likely to stop breastfeeding before six months. Physiological elements are also at play, as those who gave birth by caesarean section or who have problems in lactation are also more at risk to stop.
In addition, the discomfort and pain which can occur with breastfeeding is a major issue. A 2015 survey across ten countries and 13,000 pregnant and first-time mothers, for instance, found that pain was the most commonly-reported reason for stopping breastfeeding. The issue has cropped up on social media, with a viral posting by a 33-year-old mother from Florida speaking (and sharing a photo) of her “painful struggle” in breastfeeding her 16-day old infant.
But along with the social and physical factors affecting breastfeeding, psychological issues can weigh in, as well, according to a new study from researchers in Edinburgh, United Kingdom, who looked at how a woman’s body image influences breastfeeding, finding that those with poor self-body image were less likely to be breastfeeding at the six-to-eight weeks mark.
Researchers surveyed 70 obese and 70 healthy weight women, first within 72 hours of the birth of their child and again at six-to-eight weeks. The participants were given questionnaires to gauge factors such as breastfeeding status, level of education, mode of delivery, as well as a self-evaluation of overall appearance and satisfaction with different areas of their bodies.
The results showed that the women with higher levels of education and those with a healthy weight were more likely to be still breastfeeding at six-to-eight weeks and that obese women and those with a lower level of education were more likely to give birth by caesarean section.
The researchers also found that self-body image, which was lower overall for obese women, influenced breastfeeding, in that those women who expressed greater preoccupation with being overweight and with weight self-classification were less likely to continue breastfeeding.
“Women’s experience of body dissatisfaction is increasingly common in Western cultures which stress conformity to a ‘thin ideal,’” say the study’s authors. “This may have a negative impact on women’s post-natal psychological well-being and breastfeeding maintenance.”
The study was published in the British Journal of Health Psychology.