An exploration of online social support groups for breastfeeding mothers


Wagg, M. 2020. An exploration of online social support groups for breastfeeding mothers. Thesis Canterbury Christ Church University Salomons Institute of Applied Psychology
AuthorsWagg, M.
Qualification nameDoctor of Philosphy

This thesis provides a portfolio of research that focuses on online social support groups for breastfeeding mothers. The aim of this thesis is to explore how and why online breastfeeding support group are being used, how breastfeeding mothers make sense of and interpret their experiences, and how they perceive the impact on their breastfeeding journey.

Acquiring new breastfeeding skills at the same time as being becoming a mother is stressful and experiencing stress may lead some mothers to seek support. Historically people would interact, communicate, and thus seek and receive support from their healthcare provider face-to-face. More recently, this can occur online due to the increasing availability of the internet, home computers, mobile phones, and tablet technologies that provide quick access to others. It is well documented that breastfeeding rates in the UK are some of the lowest in the world, but with professional and peer support a mother is more likely to continue to breastfeed her baby for longer. For these reasons, online support interventions are explored in four original pieces of research, an area of practice only now emerging in the literature.

This thesis first examines the use of computer mediated communication in providing patient support. A literature review suggests that online interventions could be both what patients want, and way of delivering support in resource tight environments. This has implications for a range of health support needs and professionals. Secondly, a content analysis documents and describes the posts made to an online breastfeeding support group in the United Kingdom. Mothers are using online groups in their thousands to seek information from people in similar situations and discuss a range of parenting and breastfeeding topics. Thirdly, through Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis, it is highlighted that the online groups have the potential to provide confidence, reassurance, and to normalise breastfeeding.

Online groups provide a sense of community that supports an internal vision of what breastfeeding is like for them. The fourth study presents a case study of one mother’s use of online groups to obtain donor milk for her baby. This final piece of research highlights a tangible support type that was not highlighted in the previous studies, and all four studies highlight the complexities around online support, and infant feeding decisions.

Throughout this thesis the term support is critically explored, and the theory of social support and becoming a mother is drawn upon to underpin the research. This thesis offers a definition and model of online breastfeeding support to guide practitioners and further research. Infant feeding policies should include a compulsory social support assessment that incorporates online support, and policies should encourage professionals to have conversations around taboo and stigmatised topics. Those supporting breastfeeding mothers need to be aware of the benefits and risks of online support and be encouraged to promote online support to the mothers with whom they work.

KeywordsBreastfeeding; Online social support ; Exploration
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Deposited08 Apr 2021
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