Guest Post: On HIV, stigma, and the pressure to breastfeed

If people read one post on this blog, I hope to god it’s this one. I didn’t write it – it was submitted by Megan DePutter, who works as a Community Development Coordinator at a Canadian AIDS Service Organization – and therefore it tackles so much more than the usual mommy-war crap I tend to drone on about. 

Please read this, and talk about it, and share it as much as you can. As Megan says, as we advocate and empower women to breastfeed, we cannot simultaneously allow women who are already marginalized feel more shamed and judged. This doesn’t hold true only for women living with HIV, but those dealing with a whole slew of medical and emotional conditions that might make breastfeeding difficult or contraindicated. Sort of puts a new spin on the saying “the perfect is the enemy of the good”, doesn’t it?

- The FFF


On HIV, Stigma, and the Pressure to Breastfeed

By Megan DePutter

I work in a small-ish community (about 130,000 people) in a town about an hour outside of Toronto, in Ontario, Canada.  Locally, provincially and nation-wide, “baby-friendly initiatives” in health care and social service institutions aim to encourage and exclusive breastfeeding for 6 months. Bypassing for now the unfortunate name of the initiative (which seems to insinuate that any other approaches to feeding are “baby un-friendly”), I understand that these initiatives are evidence-based and well-intended. The problem is that, for the women I aim to support, these initiatives can create further isolation and shame to people who are already marginalized. The women I am referring to are women living with HIV.

See, while the complexity of the HIV virus is still stumping scientists who are working towards the distant prospect of a vaccine or cure, HIV has become primarily a social and a political problem, rather than a biological one.  Canada is one of the best places in the world to be living with HIV – although it’s far from perfect. But here in Canada we have readily available treatment – treatment that is more effective and easier to manage than ever before.  HIV can still pose health risks even with treatment, and the side effects can be unpleasant to say the least, but someone who is diagnosed today with HIV, takes their medication regularly, doesn’t smoke and takes care of their health can expect  a near normal lifespan.   This means if someone living with HIV today has access to treatment, health care and other necessities of good health, such as good food and stable housing (and these are big ifs for a lot of people), they can enjoy a full and productive life. They can work, they can love, they can even have children.  That’s right – they can have children! HIV positive women can – and do – give birth to HIV negative babies. In Canada, with proper treatment, the risk of giving birth to an HIV positive baby is reduced to less than 1%! This is great news for women who are HIV positive and want to have a family. However, because HIV can be transmitted through breastmilk, it is important that they do not breastfeed.

Let me back up for a minute. HIV – which stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus – is the virus that attacks the immune system and, left untreated, causes AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome). The distinction between HIV and AIDS is important because today, with proper treatment, the virus can be successfully suppressed.  Without treatment, the immune system breaks down, leaving the individual vulnerable to life-threatening opportunistic infections, at which point an individual is said to have acquired AIDS, and without medical intervention, will likely die.  With treatment though, someone can live with HIV for decades and never develop AIDS. So, if AIDS isn’t the biggest threat to people living with HIV, what is?

The answer is unequivocally stigma.  Contrary to a lot of myths, HIV is not spread through casual contact such as sharing sheets, linens, clothing, food, dishes or cutlery, bathwater, swimming pools, or toilet seats. HIV is not spread through touching, hugging, or kissing. HIV is not spread through coughing, sneezing, urine or feces, sweat, tears or saliva.   Moreover, the effective use of condoms are a successful way of preventing HIV transmission during sex, and viral load suppression through medication further reduces the risk of transmission to a near impossibility.  Methods of getting pregnant for couples who are sero-discordant (mixed HIV status) are plentiful. In other words, there is no reason to be afraid of living with, loving, or building a future with someone who has HIV.  Yet HIV positive people continue to face rejection upon disclosure of their HIV status – from potential partners, from family members, from friends, from their church and from entire communities.  People face discrimination in accessing housing and in the workplace and even from health care workers.  Whether out of fear, lack of knowledge, or judgments around how someone may have acquired HIV (which often stems from racism, homophobia, sexism and/or stigma around sex or drug use,) social exclusion can be an everyday part of the life of someone living with HIV. It is impossible for me to overstate the impact that stigma has on the health and wellbeing of people who are positive, even at a time when people with HIV are at their healthiest.

Let’s get back to breastfeeding.  For women living with HIV, motherhood can raise a gaggle of other complex social and emotional challenges. I’ve already mentioned that stigma impacts people living with HIV, but what about women specifically? People might assume that she’s a drug user, that she’s been a prostitute, that she’s been promiscuous. Given the judgments and attitudes that are often formulated around women’s sexuality, you can imagine what a woman living with HIV might face. For mothers, this stigma is intensified. And, since women with HIV must not breastfeed (although the best-practice around this differs depending on what country you live in; the guidelines are different for women living in countries without access to clean drinking water or formula) women living with HIV often face added judgment around their inability to breastfeed.

Since most women will not want to disclose their HIV status to others, they cannot divulge the very good reason they have for not breastfeeding when facing scrutiny.  The questions they are inevitably asked by friends, family, and health practitioners cause anxieties for women who are attempting to keep their HIV status a secret. In some cases, people can be very pushy about it; I have even heard stories where family members or friends may get so involved as to physically attempt to place the baby on the breast and have the baby feed without consent.  If a woman does disclose her status, she would, unfortunately, very likely face further stigma and judgments about her HIV status.  And if word got around (which it often does), she could be virtually expelled from her community. For women who are newcomers, do not speak English fluently, or are living in poverty, community engagement is often an imperative component of physical, mental and emotional wellbeing. When it comes to keeping HIV a secret, there is a lot at stake.

Furthermore, pregnancy and motherhood can bring up feelings of guilt and shame about the illness; in addition to facing external stigma, many women experience internalized stigma, and may feel guilty for not being able breastfeed. Feeling guilty about not being able to breastfeed is problematic enough for any mother, but for women who are already marginalized, further feelings of guilt and shame add to an already pretty big burden.  Some women may be tempted to breastfeed despite the risks. Others may withdraw from social circles. Others may be reluctant to access social services or health care where they are made to feel guilty about formula-feeding or pressured to discuss their personal reasons for formula-feeding.  For women living with a disease that needs to be managed through access to treatment, good health care, food, housing and community supports, social isolation can be dangerous.

HIV is not something a lot of people think about today, but it still exists – it’s just hidden.  Unfortunately a lot of health care workers in our community are unaware of HIV, the scientific developments in prevention and treatment, and the social implications of the disease.  HIV workers aim to help support women through these challenges, but we need our communities to be aware of these issues and help create supportive environments. Just because women living with HIV do speak openly about their illness does not mean the problem has gone away.

Mothers who are living with HIV need proper information and support around formula-feeding, and they need this information offered in a non-judgmental space. When programs are designed they need to take in to consideration the multitude of needs that may be spoken or unspoken.  I believe it is important that health-promotion programs, including those that support breastfeeding, be designed in an inclusive way. Women already face extensive social and political control – particularly around our bodies, sexuality, and children. It is important that social and health care programs foster independence, support diversity, and create a safe atmosphere that is free of judgment and respects the privacy and confidentiality of all women.  This is about respecting the critical health priorities of women who may already have extensive trauma issues and already experience marginalization.  I know there has been a lot of important and empowering work done towards providing better support and education on breastfeeding that is free from the outside influences of companies who sell formula, but we need to prevent the pendulum from swinging towards exclusivity.  I hope to educate health care and social service providers in my community to share information and create spaces that are built on models of inclusivity and support, rather than stigma and shame.

Please feel free to contact me at communitydevelopment (at) for more information or if you have tips or suggestions to share on how service providers can create a supportive environment for all women!  For more information about HIV and AIDS, you can also contact your local AIDS Service Organization. Other great resources are and

About the Author:

Suzanne Barston is a blogger and author of BOTTLED UP. Fearless Formula Feeder is a blog – and community – dedicated to infant feeding choice, and committed to providing non-judgmental support for all new parents. It exists to protect women from misleading or misrepresented “facts”; essentialist ideals about what mothers should think, feel, or do; government and health authorities who form policy statements based on ambivalent research; and the insidious beast known as Internetus Trolliamus, Mommy Blog Varietal.

Suzanne Barston – who has written posts on Fearless Formula Feeder.


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