Breastfeeding in the social context: The influence of stereotypes and benevolent sexism



Journal Title

Journal ISSN

Volume Title



Despite providing numerous benefits for both mothers and babies, breastfeeding remains a non-normative means of infant feeding among mothers in the United States. Past research suggests that many women face social obstacles to breastfeeding, such as being too uncomfortable to breastfeed in public, which may hinder the duration of breastfeeding. In a pair of studies, the role of sexism, perception of gendered characteristics, and attitudes toward mothers who breastfeed in private and public were examined. In Study 1, 89 women viewed photos of a woman breastfeeding in a private location, public location while using a cover, or public location without a cover. The participants were then asked to indicate the level of communal and agentic characteristics the target possessed, as well as their attitudes toward her. While no differences in positive attitudes were found between the conditions, participants in the private condition perceived the woman as possessing a higher level of communal characteristics relative to the other groups. Moreover, participants in the public-not covered condition perceived the target at possessing more agentic characteristics than the other groups. In Study 2, 96 mothers were grouped based on their self-reported frequency of engagement in breastfeeding behaviors by location (private, public-covered, public-not covered, and no breastfeeding), and rated their own levels of communal and agentic characteristics. Woman who did not breastfeed at all were found to associate themselves with lower levels of communal characteristics compared to women who breastfed in all locations (private and public). Additionally, women were found to have the most positive attitudes toward the type of location in which they themselves engaged in breastfeeding. Armed with this knowledge, advocates and professionals alike will be more equipped to address these issues, which will ultimately lead to them being more successful in providing support to women for the initiation and continuation of breastfeeding their infants.



Breastfeeding, Public Breastfeeding, Gender Stereotypes, Benevolent Sexism, Social-perception, Self-perception, Breastfeeding Behaviors