Liquid Gold from the Milk Bar: Constructions of Breastmilk and Breastfeeding Women in the Language and Practices of Midwives

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This article was originally published as:

Burns, E., Schmied, V., Fenwick, J., & Sheehan, A. (2012). Liquid gold from the milk bar: Constructions of breastmilk and breastfeeding women in the language and practices of midwives. Social Science & Medicine, 75(10), 1737-1745. doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2012.07.035

ISSN: 0277-9536

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Midwives are the main health professional group providing support and assistance to women during the early establishment of breastfeeding. In published accounts of early breastfeeding experiences women report high levels of dissatisfaction with health professional support. To gain an understanding of this dissatisfaction, we examined the way in which midwives represent breastmilk and construct breastfeeding women in their interactions. Seventy seven women and seventy six midwives at two maternity units in NSW, Australia, participated in this study. Eighty five interactions between a midwife and a breastfeeding woman were observed and audio recorded during the first week after birth. In addition, data were collected through observation of nine parenting education sessions, interviews with 23 women following discharge, and 11 managers and lactation consultants (collected between October 2008 and September 2009). Discourse analysis was used to analyse the transcribed interactions, and interview data. The analysis revealed that midwives prioritised both colostrum and mature breastmilk as a ‘precious resource’, essential for the health and wellbeing of the infant and mother. References to breastmilk as ‘liquid gold’ were both verbal and implied. Within this discourse, the production and acquisition of ‘liquid gold’ appeared to be privileged over the process of breastfeeding and women were, at times, positioned as incompetent operators of their bodily ‘equipment’, lacking knowledge and skill in breastfeeding. In this context breastfeeding became constructed as a manufacturing process for a demanding consumer. The approach taken by midwives revealed an intensive focus on nutrition to the exclusion of relational communication and support. The findings indicate the need to challenge the current ‘disciplinary’ and ‘technological’ practices used by midwives when providing breastfeeding support and the need for a cultural change in postnatal care.


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