The breastfeeding experience

Associate Professor Kath Ryan from the School of Nursing & Midwifery at La Trobe University and a team of researchers have explored the phenomenon of the ‘interembodied’ experience of breastfeeding and has found some interesting results.

mother and baby‘Although the cord was cut after the baby was born, the baby and mother were not yet separate entities; hence the term ‘interembodied’. It is this intense connection to each other that is the essence of the phenomenon,’ says Dr Ryan.

49 women participated in the study, undergoing in-depth filmed interviews to identify three significant parts of the phenomenon described as calling, permission and fulfilment.

According to Dr Ryan, women’s narratives of their breastfeeding experience contained instances of the body understanding its emotional task which existed or occurred before the development of speech.

‘In the initial analysis of women’s video discussions about their everyday experiences, we saw interesting things about the ways that the body “knew” about breastfeeding. This included instances of women hearing their baby cry and then producing milk,’ she says.

‘Medical research currently dominates our understanding of breastfeeding. Because it is focused on the physical aspects of milk production and transfer to the baby, it provides very few, limited, narrowing and even punishing subject positions for women. This often sets them up to fail when conditions or expectations are inappropriate,’ says Dr Ryan.

‘Calling’ is characterised as nonverbal communication between mother and baby, the woman’s body knew and acted immediately and intimately before she had time to reflect. ‘Permission’ refers to the uninterrupted and protected space in which breastfeeding takes place and the women described ‘fulfillment’ in terms of the closeness, comfort, and bodily compatibility of successful breastfeeding.

‘There is a need for privacy and lack of interference in the process as necessary requirements for women to be able to follow their own knowledge and become attuned to their baby’s cues when breastfeeding.

‘Mothers are attuned to their bodies and their babies (and vice versa), and there is a need to respect this as a way of knowing, perhaps by paying attention to the emotional and embodied discourses that surround breastfeeding, and developing a language that enables women to locate where things go wrong so that they might improve their breastfeeding environment and the chances of fulfilling their embodied calling,’ says Dr Ryan.

‘It is difficult to make a distinction between being and knowing; action is as immediate as the knowing. The body is telling them what the emotional task of breastfeeding is but giving voice to this important emotional task is sorely needed,’ she says.

‘Embodied knowledge is there and we see it in the women’s video narratives. Women are living and talking about it, but they and their health professionals are failing to recognise this dialogue,’ says Dr Ryan.

The study—Women's Experiences of Breastfeeding in the UK—was conducted in collaboration with Bournemouth University and Oxford University

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