According to new research out of Canada, social media platforms can contribute to higher breastfeeding rates by normalizing public feeding and creating supportive communities—but as with anything, they also have a downside.
#Normalizebreastfeeding! #Breastisbest! It doesn't take long to find breastfeeding imagery on social media. All you have to do is search a choice hashtag and you'll find thousands of pieces of content (on Instagram, 736,000 posts for #normalizebreastfeeding and 371,000 for #breastisbest)—often photos of happy mothers snuggled up with babies latched to their nipples.
But what does all of this content mean for mothers?
A new study published in August by Dr. Meghan Azad (a scientist at the Children's Hospital Research Institute of Manitoba and a Canada Research Chair in Developmental Origins of Chronic Disease at the University of Manitoba) and Alessandro Marcon (a research associate in the Health Law Institute at the University of Alberta) examined 4,089 Instagram images and 8,331 comments attached to four common hashtags (#breastfeeding, #breastmilk, #breastisbest and #normalizebreastfeeding) and found that Instagram has become a place to promote a variety of breastfeeding-related content and allows new mothers the chance to share experiences and interact with a supportive community. And that's a beautiful thing, right?
Here are a few key takeaways from the study:
- Social stigma contributes to low breastfeeding rates: The majority of infants around the world do not meet international breastfeeding recommendations. "We know that there are many complex and interconnected reasons for low breastfeeding rates," says Dr. Azad. "One contributing factor is social stigma—new mothers sometimes receive negative attention when nursing in public, and may be told to cover up or take their breastfeeding elsewhere."
- Celebrity posts and online awareness campaigns such as World Breastfeeding Week can increase breastfeeding rates: Campaigning in Vietnam raised breastfeeding rates from 26 percent in 2011 to 48 percent in 2012.
- On Instagram, breastfeeding tends to be received in a positive light: In 92 percent of the discussions analyzed, users offered compliments and praise. In 47 percent of discussions, users thanked one another. The most prominent words generated from comment discussions were like, love, good, great, beautiful, amazing, awesome and thanks.
- Very few images were argumentative, hostile or critical of breastfeeding: Less than 0.5 percent (a total of 20 images) of all images studied were judged by researchers as antagonistic. In this small category of antagonistic imagery, 14 posts were "critiques concerning the sexualization of breasts and/or the stigmatizing of breastfeeding in public. Two raised issues concerning the stigmatizing of women who do not or cannot breastfeed. The last four images raised other issues related to breastfeeding including race, breastfeeding at work and the factual benefits of breastfeeding."
- The types of people portrayed in breastfeeding images lack diversity: Men very rarely make an appearance in shared photos of breastfeeding, even though they may play a supportive role in the breastfeeding experience. There is also underrepresentation of non-white ethnicities.
As the study demonstrates, Instagram has become a place for women to share their experiences, get advice, demonstrate that breastfeeding in public is OK and find a safe community of women in similar circumstances. And that's a positive for so many mothers. But as great as all the side effects of social posting and commenting are when it comes to the normalization of breastfeeding, Instagram also has the ability to create unrealistic expectations, trigger feelings of guilt and exclude certain groups of people.
"I went gung-ho posting photos of breastfeeding in public because I wanted to normalize it through my own feed," says Paige, mother to 15-month-old Winnie. "And then retroactively I thought, 'Oh, am I not being sensitive enough to people who have trouble? Am I being too blasé about it?' There are still so many people who think public breastfeeding is disgusting, so I wanted to make it seem like, yeah, take your baby out and about! But later on I saw a few people post about their struggles with breastfeeding, and it made me think that we shouldn't assume that breastfeeding is the normal state of things."
Janna, mom to six-month-old son, Ethan, is one such woman who finds it hard to look at the aspirational shots of breastfeeding photos on Instagram because it's not her personal experience. "It's nice to see women speaking out about the right to breastfeed anywhere at any time," she says. "But seeing it over and over, it hits me in the stomach. It reminds me that I'm not one of those women who can breastfeed wherever I want [because of supply issues]. On the one hand, social media is empowering. But social media can also affect your self-esteem."
Tat, an entrepreneur and her family's sole breadwinner, agrees that Instagram photos often show only one way of doing things that doesn't leave room for different types of family situations. "We put our son on formula almost right away and then I didn't have to wake up for any nighttime feedings. My husband, who is a stay-at-home dad, did everything. Even though I didn't breastfeed, my son is thriving, my business is thriving, I feel great and my husband feels useful. I didn't picture this scenario, and that's why I think it's important to talk about it. If we can help women picture [multiple ways of doing things], then they can make more informed choices."
For Instagram to provide the most benefit for the most parents, more people need to share their realities—not just the pretty and perfect moments. The platform needs to be a safe space for all types of people (non-white, fathers, non-heterosexual couples) to explore their child feeding journeys and to go into detail about their unique struggles, triumphs, messes and each of the choices they were able to make for themselves. When it comes to parenthood, sharing (your journey with the world) really is caring.