“Giving guilt the flick”: An investigation of ‘guilt-free’ morality for mothers in infant feeding discussions

Researcher Kate Williams

Supervisors Dr Ngaire Donaghue

Date: November, 2010


Breastfeeding has been heavily promoted in Australia in recent years. Books, magazines and leaflets for new and expectant mothers, government health policies, and advice from antenatal classes and health professionals, all strongly promote breastfeeding as the superior infant-feeding method. As such, the superiority of breastfeeding has long been recognised by professional fields and is widely publicised to the lay population.

There are two expert discourses that are commonly drawn upon in breastfeeding promotion that constitute the cultural milieu of ‘breast is best’ in which women make infant feeding decisions. These discourses can be described as: medicalisation and risk and natural vs. artificial. Each of these discourses is underpinned by expert notions of risk and a notion of individualised choice, which in turn, contribute to a discursive environment that endorses breastfeeding through its link with ‘good’ mothering. The maxim ‘breast is best’ dominates the context in which women decide how to feed their babies, and as a result, mothers who do not breastfeed their babies may find themselves in ‘moral danger’.

Recently, in their construction of the issue of infant feeding, Australian childcare materials have attended to the possible implications of pro-breastfeeding discourses for mothers’ subjective experiences, particularly the issue of guilt. The study aims to investigate the consequences of the inclusion of text about formula-feeding mothers’ guilt and emotions in various childcare materials, in the context of overwhelming advocacy of breastfeeding in these materials.


Thirty-five women were recruited to participate in focus group discussions. Qualitative data was collected from nine focus groups each containing three or four participants, with the exception of one group of eight. Participants were recruited by contacting existing mothers groups or individual mothers by email and phone. Mothers were invited to participate regardless of their feeding practice in order to access potentially different discursive constructions surrounding infant feeding decisions.

The study employs Foucauldian Discourse Analysis to analyse the ways in which mothers construct the issue of infant-feeding and related subjective experiences in focus group discussions. The Foucauldian school of thought defines discourse as a collection of statements, terms, and categories that are historically, socially, and institutionally specific that function as a set of unspoken rules and assumptions that regulate practices (Foucault, 1991). By establishing what is understood as ‘normal’ and ‘best’, dominant discourses construct standards that exhort people to regulate their own actions even in the absence of force or coercion; dominant discourses come to be understood as normal and obvious ‘truths’. Thus, behaviour is governed through a set of standards and values deemed to reflect the ‘correct’ way of being in the world, which are delineated by a system of seemingly beneficent and scientific forms of knowledge.


The study focuses on the ways the mothers draw upon notions of ‘guilt’, ‘choice’ and ‘emotional self-control’ to attend to the possibility of moral judgement over their infant feeding practices. The study indentified:

  1. a construction of choice that dramatically restricts permissible ‘valid’ reasons for making such a choice
  2. a construction that guilt is a natural and appropriate response for ‘good’ mothers who cannot breastfeed
  3. a focus on formula-feeding mothers controlling their emotions and not ‘feeling’ guilty rather than assertions that formula-feeding mothers are not guilty.

The tensions and contradictions arising from such constructions make being ‘guilt-free’ an unstable position requiring constant attention and renegotiation.


Despite recent attempts to attend to mothers’ subjectivity in order to alleviate widespread feelings of guilt, current discourse surrounding infant feeding continues to destabilise women’s ability to feel sure about any decision or practice other than that of breastfeeding. The inadequacies of the directive ‘don’t feel guilty’ are evidenced in the number of women who are not persuaded that there is no cause for guilt in infant feeding decisions. The findings indicate that a focus on not ‘feeling’ guilty does little to change the discursive framework of constrained choice that serves as a moral directive for good mothering, but rather serves to delegitimise the complexity of women’s experiences.

The present study extends existing research by illustrating how women manage ‘not feeling guilty’, ‘choice’ and ‘emotional self-control’ in order to achieve certain social identities and to influence moral judgement over their practices. This paper identifies some of the difficulties related to having to engage with opposing discourses and the moral labour that is undertaken to maintain and present a ‘correct’ moral subjectivity. Examining the talk of women with diverse practices, rather than just those who use formula, allows an understanding of the pervasiveness and complexity of women’s subjective experiences, and thus highlights the impossibility and futility of the simple injunction ‘don’t feel guilty’.


Foucault, M. (1991). Discipline and Punish: The birth of the prison. London: Penguin.