Sunday, 4 November 2007

Language and the framing of popular science

Deena just showed me a very well-written article, "Watch your language", about the framing of science in public health. It looks at the issue of breastfeeding versus bottle-feeding infants, and how the language we use affects the perception of the alternatives in subtle but powerful ways.

The World Health Organization says on breastfeeding that:
Breastfeeding is the ideal way of providing young infants with the nutrients they need for healthy growth and development. Virtually all mothers can breastfeed, provided they have accurate information, and the support of their family and the health care system. Colostrum, the yellowish, sticky breast milk produced at the end of pregnancy, is recommended by WHO as the perfect food for the newborn, and feeding should be initiated within the first hour after birth. Exclusive breastfeeding is recommended up to 6 months of age.
According to a 2005 survey, only 8% of babies (less than 1 in 12) born in the UK are breastfed exclusively for the first six months, despite the fact that 84% of mothers "said they were aware of the health benefits of breastfeeding."

This seems to be typical of developed countries.

Why? Read the article. I suspect that the ideas presented there are transferable to other public science issues.


  1. I had never heard the issue framed from a language perspective before. Very informative. I breastfed exclusively for the first 4 months of my child's life, and then on demand until he weaned himself at approximately fourteen months.
    It was an uphill battle the whole time with societal disapproval and their shame of what I was doing.
    Language is a most powerful weapon.

  2. It is indeed. I would love to see something like the article I pointed to show up in a major newspaper or two. Maybe it would be able to raise people's consciousness a little.

    Just days after writing the post, I saw a newspaper article about breastfeeding. In my mind, I translated all the "breastfeeding reduces risk of..." lines into "choosing not to breastfeed increases risk of...", and it went from a light, fluffy bit of news to a hard-hitting window on the dangers of choosing to bottle-feed.

    I may not always agree with the media's love of sensationalizing, but I have to say that they seem to have missed a golden opportunity here: the science is behind them, medical and public opinion is behind them. Surely this is the kind of news they could make a lot of mileage out of. How can they pass up headlines like these: "Bottle-feeding lowers baby's IQ" and "Bottle-feeding increases mom's & tot's risk of breast cancer"

  3. I completely agree with the article. Breastfeeding is normal and calling it 'ideal' makes it acceptably unattainable.

    In the UK the government has just announced that the wording on infant milk products will be more closely regulated. But they do not go far enough.

    Find out more from the Baby Milk Action campaign and the Boycott Nestlé



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