Strong cultural associations between sexuality and breasts underpin men's perceptions on breastfeeding and have a significant impact on the low rates of breastfeeding in the UK, according to new research from Brunel University and the University of York.
The father's opinion has been identified as the most important factor in a mother's decision of whether to breastfeed or bottle feed, yet the perceptions of men have rarely been explored.
Researchers at Brunel University and the Mother and Infant Research Unit at the University of York have found that men perceive breastfeeding to be 'natural' but problematic. The assumption is that it involves excessive exposure and will attract unwanted male attention. In contrast, bottle feeding is seen to be convenient and safe.
Further explorations revealed that social and cultural associations between sexuality and breasts fuelled these fears of exposure and embarrassment.
Brunel's lead researcher Dr Lesley Henderson said: "Until breastfeeding becomes a commonplace activity and breastfeeding in public becomes normalized, people are unlikely to learn from the experience of seeing other women breastfeed; breastfeeding will remain a contentious issue, and rates will remain low, especially in young, low-income families."
Dr Henderson argues that antenatal and perinatal education with men should address not only practical issues but also tackle wider sociocultural issues of sexuality and masculinity. The role of the media should also be considered as a significant contribution to this attitude as breastfeeding is typically portrayed as difficult, funny or embarrassing.
The paper Men and Infant Feeding: Perceptions of Embarrassment, Sexuality, and Social Conduct in White Low Income British Men will be published in the March issue of the journal BIRTH. The paper is now available to read online.
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