Stacey Soloman’s Insightful Observation on Breastfeeding: The Psychology of Comparison

Comparing ourselves to others is a universal human experience and it has served a useful purpose for thousands of years of human existence. So why do you think comparison to others might be a useful trait for us to have?

17th February 2020

Dr James Rathbone
Chartered Clinical Psychologist

A fortnight ago, my wife and I welcomed our second child into the world. We were able to enjoy the moment together and share the exciting news with our waiting family and friends. Before long, we left the hospital and returned home where we could spend some time with our two children as a new family of four. As any parent of multiple children will tell you, periods of calm and quiet can be few and far between. However, last Thursday (13th February) my wife and I, during one such quiet period, were able to sit down and watch some daytime TV together. We watched an episode of Loose Women that, amongst other things, had a section on breastfeeding. The episode we watched can be viewed for a limited time on ITV Hub (Series 24, Episode 31, 12m41s*).

In the episode, the panel discussed whether struggles with breastfeeding affects the mental well-being of mothers. Stacey Solomon reflected on the challenges of breastfeeding her third child and made an incredibly insightful observation that I felt it did not garner as much discussion as I would have liked it to. When asked whether she felt concerns about bonding and attachment had added to the pressure to breastfeed, she responded by saying she felt it was more about the pressure she had put on herself by romanticising breastfeeding as a result of how it is portrayed in such a positive, ‘warm and glowing’ light. As a result, when she couldn’t breastfeed her son, this lead her to believe she wasn’t doing a good job as a mother.

This is something my wife and I had discussed prior to the births of both of our children. Despite our best intentions to just do what works for us, we too felt pressure to get things right. When my wife struggled to breastfeed our firstborn following and emotionally and physically traumatic birth we had hoped for more compassion and understanding from healthcare professionals. Unfortunately, the ‘breast is best’ mentality broke through despite any outward verbalisation from healthcare professionals that both breast and bottle method is fine.

Comparison is normal – but often not helpful!

Comparing ourselves to others is a universal human experience and it has served a useful purpose for thousands of years of human existence. So why do you think comparison to others might be a useful trait for us to have?

When compared to all other species, humans don’t tend to be the best at many things. A monkey will climb a tree better than us; a crocodile can swim faster than us; a bear is stronger than us; a wolf can track its next meal better than us… you get the picture. Therefore, to survive, humans needs to work together in groups using our ability to communicate and work to our strengths. Some members of the group would hunt, others gather. Some would cook and clean and others educate the young. As humans were evolving, it would have been important to maintain our position within a group and not be rejected.

This form of cooperation would have helped us to survive the many threats we encountered on a daily basis. Therefore, a useful skill to have would have been to check whether we are pulling our weight and making a significant contribution to the group. Members of the group that were not contributing would have been kicked out and left to fend for themselves. It’s unlikely they would have survived for very long and may not have lived long enough to have children and pass their genes on to the next generation.

Those that were good at comparing themselves to others, and upped their game if they were falling behind, would have survived much longer, increasing the chance these helpful genes would have been passed on to offspring.

Our ancestors would have had a small village worth of people to compare themselves to. Now think about the world we live in today. In modern society we have smart phones, celebrity influencers, and TV shows to compare every aspect of our lives to. We don’t have to look too hard before we find lots people who look like they’re doing much better than we are. We see people on better holidays than we go on, wearing nicer clothes than we do, driving a more expensive car than ours, or living in a nicer house. We might even look at others and see them being more social than we are or believe they are in a happier relationship than our own. And yes, mothers who want to show the world how successful they have been at breastfeeding their baby.

“Don’t compare your behind the scenes with other people’s front of house” 

Earlier this year I attended some training where one line from the whole day stood out more than the rest. The presenter highlighted that we shouldn’t compare our behind the scenes with other people’s front of house. Most people only share a portion of their lives online and this tends to focus on the all of the positive things they are doing. When we view this ‘perfect world’ on social media we are setting up an unfair comparison which can lead to unrealistic expectations for what we feel our lives should be like. It is unsurprising then that we are seeing an increase in people struggling with their mental well-being and expressing distressing feelings of guilt, shame and anxiety.

Yes, comparison is normal, but it’s not always helpful. I would add that in today’s world of social media it is also an unfair fight.

So, what can we do about it? The most important thing is to be more aware when we are making comparisons with others. We can acknowledge that it is normal and automatic for us to make comparisons. What is more, it has served us well in the past. However, we should also be aware that people often do not share when they are struggling, and so through the lens of social media, we see a rose-tinted view of the lives of others that can lead us to feeling inadequate. This is a time to show yourself some self-compassion and self-care.

Finally, to return to the episode of Loose Women that first got me thinking about this topic. I am certainly no breastfeeding expert and I can only speak from personal experience as the male half of a parenting couple and as a mental health professional. Breastfeeding can be a physically and emotionally challenging experience for mothers, especially when you feel it isn’t going well. However, for every mother you see that appears to be ‘nailing breastfeeding’ and sharing that with you through Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp etc etc, there is a mother somewhere that is struggling and worrying about whether she is good enough. You won’t necessarily hear from those women or see their struggles, but they are there.

I want to take the time to reassure those women; you are doing an amazing job. The fact that you are worrying about how you are breastfeeding shows how much you care about the well-being of your child… and that’s what being a good mum is all about. You are nailing it too! 

* As I am directing you to the Loose Women episode, I wanted to briefly comment on an additional part of the conversation. During the discussion, the panel talked with Clare Byam-Cook, a former midwife and self-styled breastfeeding expert. I was surprised to hear her describe mothers as amateurs in the breastfeeding process and health professionals as the experts. I feel we should always be wary when someone takes the position of expert in our own personal experience. Whilst she sought to dismiss the message that breast is best, this was somewhat compounded by her making the comparison between mothers who can’t breastfeed, and cows sent to slaughter for being useless milk producers. There are many reasons why women might struggle to breastfeed. I call on all healthcare professionals to be more considered in the language they use to avoid increasing feelings of guilt and shame. Without wanting to get into that debate too much as I might address it in a future blog, on this occasion I feel we should give Clare Byam-Cook the benefit of doubt and strike it down as a metaphor gone astray.