Eating for two

May 25, 2007

When I was pregnant, 34 years ago, I craved, and ate, blue cheese and chocolate. By the age of three months, my daughter happily consumed mashed banana, boiled eggs and honey.

"See if she likes them" had been my mother's advice. My pregnant daughter, 25 years later, had a list of forbidden foods and age or stage feeding directives for the baby.

As part of the "Changing Families, Changing Food" project, we examined the impact and sources of advice on feeding mothers and babies across recent generations during the transition to motherhood. We questioned by e-mail about 100 women, mostly in professional and skilled occupations. The older generation were grandmothers with a mean age 60. The younger had children under 16 living with them and a mean age 37. This was followed by in-depth interviews with a sample of ten women from each generation.

The older generation (grandmothers of children under five years, all of whom had on average became mothers about five years younger than the current generation and had had one more child than them) took advice from mothers, friends and family with "informed" lip service to old wives'

tales, such as "fish is brain food". Other eating habits were influenced by cravings and nausea.

Some older women thought that younger mothers (who had children under five) were better informed than they had been. But one older woman said: "My daughter is pregnant now and keeps saying she can't eat this or that. I think she's over-reacting. I had all of those things and a glass of wine when I fancied it, and I had three healthy children."

Certainly, eating taboos for the current generation are abundant. "I stopped drinking caffeine and alcohol, stopped eating blue cheese, cooked fish and eggs thoroughly and washed salad and vegetables," one mother said.

The women in this group are more likely to give birth by Caesarean, less likely to breastfeed and have significantly more self-reported problems during pregnancy.

But has the maternal instinct withered with this increasing medicalisation of childbirth?

Not quite. Even though they comply with eating advice, most of these mothers, even with the first baby, take information from both medical sources and self-selected books and websites. And younger women who have already had children are much less likely to be passive recipients of medical advice in subsequent pregnancies.

Paula Nicolson is professor of social and health psychology and head of the department of health and social care at Royal Holloway, University of London.

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