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Friday, 10 November, 2000, 01:56 GMT
Media 'deters breast-feeding'
Many women are put off breastfeeding
Media images may deter British women from breast-feeding, say researchers.

Writing in the British Medical Journal, a team from Brunel University say breast and bottle feeding are portrayed very differently in the UK mass media.

They say it may be a major factor behind the reluctance of many women to breast-feed, despite high profile public health campaigns to try to persuade them to do so.

Breast-feeding is associated with the most health benefits and yet it is the form of feeding that is not portrayed in a positive light

Dr Lesley Henderson, Brunel University
There is strong evidence breast-feeding protects the baby against various infections, and allergies such as asthma and eczema.

The mother may also benefit - there is some evidence breast-feeders may enjoy some protection from breast, uterine and ovarian cancer.

The researchers found bottle feeding was shown on television and in newspapers more frequently than breast-feeding, and was presented as less problematic.

According to an analysis of 200 television and newspaper references, bottle feeding was associated with "ordinary" families, whereas breast-feeding was associated with middle class or celebrity women.

Just one television scene, on the Channel 4 soap Brookside, showed a woman breast-feeding, while there were 170 visual references to formula feeding across all the programmes.

In all the programmes watched, there was just one reference to the problems of bottle-feeding compared to 27 to the difficulties of breast-feeding.

The problems associated with breast-feeding included sore nipples and the practical and emotional difficulties of leaving a baby.

Powerful tool

Researcher Dr Lesley Henderson said the media was a powerful tool for changing public attitudes and behaviour, and more could be done to promote breast-feeding.

She told BBC News Online: "Breast-feeding is associated with the most health benefits and yet it is the form of feeding that is not portrayed in a positive light."

She said women mentioned or portrayed in the media who breastfed were almost all either middle class, or celebrities like Spice Girls Victoria Beckham and Melanie Brown.

"Breast-feeding was almost used as a shorthand to portray middle class women, this could make some women less likely to think that breast-feeding is something that they should try."

Research carried out by the NHS Centre for Review and Dissemination published this summer found campaigns to promote breast-feeding were failing to reach disadvantaged women.

The number of women breast-feeding in the UK remains low at approximately 40% to 60%, with the lowest uptake rates in the lowest social classes.

The centre called on the government to radically alter its approach so the health benefits can be felt by every social group.

The government committed itself to policies to boost breast-feeding rates in its White Paper, "Our Healthier Nation", published in 1998.

A spokesman for the National Childbirth Trust said: "We welcome this new research; it is a useful illustration of how baby feeding is viewed and highlights some of the factors which influence women as they decide how to feed their babies.

"It is ironic that this research shows that breast-feeding in the media - when it is mentioned at all - seems to be associated only with middle class people or celebrities.

"Not only is breast milk by far the best food for baby but it is also free - so what better choice for `ordinary' families, for instance?"

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18 May 00 | Medical notes
Breast vs bottle
09 Aug 00 | Health
Breast-feeding message 'unheeded'
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