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What kids (don't) see in their picture books. And why it matters.
Reproduced from 'Essence' magazine
Volume 42, Number 2
Exclusively for ABA subscribers

Child reading By Helen Jeffcoat and Emily Dickson


The illustrations in children's picture books reflect the society we live in. The stories and the illustrations both create and reinforce perceptions about what is normal, acceptable, desirable behaviour for a baby, child, and adult in our society. So, what do children see in their books about how babies are fed?


In the first half of 2005 we did a survey of illustrations in children's books, and wrote to authors and illustrators who have shown babies being breastfed or bottle-fed, asking for their thoughts on the topic. We found relatively few books show that normally babies are breastfed. Many more show them with bottles.


Illustration © 1987 Blackbird Design Pty Ltd From Brand New Baby by Bob Graham Reproduced by permission of Walker Books Ltd, London SE11 5HJ One part of ABA's mission is to influence our society to acknowledge breastfeeding as the norm for infant nutrition. It used to be, before artificial baby milk became widely available and promoted. In some societies it still is the norm. Parents-to-be today ask "How will we feed our baby? Breast or bottle?' They perceive it as a choice between equal alternatives, like one brand of pram or another, each with advantages and disadvantages to be considered, and then one choice adopted. Regardless of where this perception comes from, it is now undoubtedly reinforced in children's books.


Should children's picture books have a role in re-establishing breastfeeding as the normal way to feed babies? Yes. Most storylines have a teaching element to them. Some model behaviour seen as desirable, such as learning to play fairly with other children. Others explore ways to face and solve problems. Along with parents, family and the other significant people in a child's life, books are important early influences in teaching young readers about all aspects of our society, - what is fair behaviour, how to be happy, how to be healthy, how to cope with difficult situations. The main message that picture books are teaching our children about how babies are fed is "When you have a baby, you have a bottle."


Illustration © 1989 Blackbird Design Pty Ltd From Red Woollen Blanket by Bob Graham Reproduced by permission of Walker Books Ltd, London SE11 5HJ Breastfeeding images are most common in the 'new baby' genre, written to help an older sibling understand what is about to happen, accept the newcomer into the family, and understand their own feelings in this new situation. In this category of books almost half showed breastfeeding only, a quarter showed only bottle-feeding, and a quarter showed both. Some of these books presented them as simply equal, alternative ways to feed a baby1. One book even gave the misleading impression in the text that artificial baby milk is dried breastmilk2.


Others show the baby being breastfed only in the very early days, and bottle-fed once the baby is a little older. Perhaps this is just reflecting reality in our society. Although most mothers do initiate breastfeeding, and upon discharge from hospital 83 percent are breastfeeding, only 54 percent of babies are still fully breastfed at 3 months3. We found stories that depicted this reality. Author Bob Graham's stories Brand New Baby4 and The Red Woollen Blanket5 show a newborn breastfeeding, but older babies with bottles. In correspondence he explained that he drew and wrote from his and his wife's experience with their own daughter. Similarly, Allan Ahlberg, whose book The Baby's Catalogue6 shows a balance of breast and bottle-feeding, explained that they wanted to make a book for babies which showed various parts of their lives.


Children's books not only reflect, but also change to influence society's mores. One clear example is the disappearance of smoking. In 'A Baby Sister for Frances', first published in 19647, father is shown smoking a pipe. The pipe or cigar was a symbol imbued with fatherly wisdom. All was right with the world again when father could sit down in his comfy chair with his slippers, newspaper and pipe.


KATIE MORAG AND THE GRAND CONCERT by Mairi Hedderwick, published by Red Fox. Reprinted by permission of The Random House Group Ltd. Not only has smoking disappeared from children's picture books, but fathers are now shown helping. They bathe the new baby, wash the dishes, and prepare meals. Stories challenge gender stereotyping, showing girls can play rough games, become doctors, drive tractors if they want to. In Usborne's First 100 Words8 mum is wielding the hammer, while Dad gives the baby a bottle. Well-intentioned, but ill-conceived. Pictures are powerful, and it is our impression that illustrators and authors make real efforts to promote desired changes in society. To promote breastfeeding, we'd need a lot more breastfeeding images to re-establish it as the normal way to feed a baby.


Apart from the 'new baby' genre, we surveyed many other stories where babies appear. In these stories, bottles are everywhere. Of course we are not saying that bottles should not be shown at all, just that they should not be so ubiquitous in children's storybooks. Frequently, the bottles in the pictures are totally unnecessary. A bottle lying on the floor under the cot, sticking out of a bag hanging on the pushchair, being dropped by the baby as mum talks to her older son. The story is not about how the child is fed, and the picture would lose nothing by the bottle being left out. It seems it is simply there because of the assumption "when you have a baby, you have a bottle."


KATIE MORAG AND THE TIRESOME TED by Mairi Hedderwick, published by Red Fox. Reprinted by permission of The Random House Group Ltd. The opposite situation is very rare, where the story is about something else entirely, but there happens to be a baby in the picture, and the illustrator shows it breastfeeding. We found only three examples, all by the same author / illustrator, Mairi Hedderwick, in her Katie Morag Series. When the foreman bursts into the family's living room to warn a storm wave has swept the workmen's hut into the sea, Mrs McColl happens to be breastfeeding the baby at the time9. While Mum, Dad, and a neighbour sit on the sofa watching Katie Morag practise her performance for the Grand Concert, the baby is feeding again10. The author wrote that she was just drawing her own experience of life with a growing family in a small island community. It wasn't a deliberate intention to promote breastfeeding, rather an attempt to convey the cosiness of the home and family.


Hoban, R, A Baby Sister for Francis, Random House, London, 1964 But the greatest shock is in those stories where animals are behaving like humans - living in houses, watching TV, eating at a table, talking, maybe wearing clothes. These animals are almost all mammals, usually cute and furry - rabbits11, dogs12, badgers, bears13, the occasional hippopotamus14,15. In these stories if the new baby is shown feeding, it is always bottle-fed. When authors want animals to seem convincing as human parents, one of the props is a bottle for their baby.


Or perhaps there is a more practical reason. The animals in these stories would lie on their side while their young suckle, or stand up while the infant nuzzles underneath. Once you've made the animal sit in a chair, how do you then draw it feeding naturally? Perhaps the illustrators find it too ridiculous to draw them breastfeeding when the animals' teats are in quite a different place. But it seems acceptable to draw them bottle-feeding. After all, it's an equal alternative, isn't it?


That is the perception the pictures in children's books create: "There's no difference. Some people do one; some people do the other. What does it matter?" It does matter. Bottle-feeding images do affect breastfeeding success.


The assumption that bottle-feeding is how babies are usually fed causes problems with breastfeeding in a number of ways. The most obvious is that the position for holding a baby to give a bottle is very different from the position for breastfeeding. Interestingly, even pictures that did show breastfeeding often showed the baby held in a bottle-feeding position. Poor positioning like this is a major cause of damaged nipples, ineffective suckling, and consequent premature weaning.


Secondly, the seeds for undermining a mother's confidence that she might not be able to breastfeed and had better have bottles handy just in case are planted early. In 'getting ready for the new baby-type' stories you buy the pram, cot, nappies and bottles, before the baby has arrived.


Thirdly, because bottle-feeding is seen as an equal alternative, parents assume it is OK, even desirable, to give a breastfed baby an occasional bottle 'to give Mum a break'. These sentiments are well-intentioned, but subtly undermine breastfeeding success. In Captain Pike Looks after the Baby16 Mrs Pike doubtless never considered that starting occasional bottles can cause problems with reduced supply, blocked ducts, nipple confusion, or breast refusal. Bottle-feeding is seen as so normal that these potential problems are not acknowledged, and if they do arise, they are not important. After all, the baby can just go on the bottle totally. What's the problem with that?


The problem is when bottle-feeding is viewed as an equal alternative, the mother who perseveres through breastfeeding difficulties and extreme pain is frequently looked on with puzzlement or exasperation. 'Why is she being such a martyr?' If society accepted breastfeeding as the normal way to feed a baby, the mother experiencing problems would feel supported as she perseveres, knowing she is doing something everyone accepts as normal and appropriate. Community support for breastfeeding is essential, and we can help rebuild it through the pictures in children's books.


So, what can each of us do to increase the proportion of breastfeeding images in children's picture books, and to decrease the prevalence of bottle images that are simply unnecessary? Choose carefully when you buy books for your children. The accompanying list has books with breastfeeding images. Buy these when you give birthday presents. Suggest them for your kindergarten, pre-school and school libraries. Request them from your council library, who will then buy them if they don't already hold them. Donate them to waiting rooms that have a children's play area. Write to the authors and illustrators to tell them how much you appreciate their stories and pictures.(Write to their publisher and your letter will be passed on. You can find the addresses from the websites.) Most importantly, write to the publishers congratulating them for books you particularly like. Publishers are conservative, and several illustrators we contacted said they had great difficulty getting breastfeeding images into print, as publishers were unwilling to include anything which might reduce sales of their books in the USA. So let the publishers know that good breastfeeding images will increase sales for them here!


Help increase the proportion of children's books with breastfeeding images

  • Look out for these books in the bookshop
  • Give them as gifts
  • Borrow them from your local library
  • Request the library to buy them if they are not in the collection yet
  • Encourage your child's kindergarten, preschool and school library to buy them
  • Donate them to a waiting room children's corner when your child has outgrown them
  • Write to the author, illustrator and publisher congratulating them for a book you really like.


Some children's books with breastfeeding images:

Foreman, M 2000, Cat in the Manger,
Andersen Press Ltd., London ISBN: 0862649277
Gee, R 1997, Babies,
Usborne Publishing Ltd., London ISBN: 0746031548
Halligan, M 1997, The Midwife's Daughters,
Mammoth Australia, Kew ISBN 1863307788
Harris, R H 2000, Hi New Baby!,
Walker Books, London ISBN 0744582261
Harris, R H 1998, Happy Birth Day!,
Walker Books, London ISBN 0744552648
Hedderwick, M 1995, Katie Morag and the Tiresome Ted,
Random House Children's Books, London ISBN: 0099118815
Hedderwick, M 1997, Katie Morag and the Grand Concert ,
Random House Children's Books, London ISBN: 0370323351
Hedderwick, M 1997, Katie Morag and the New Pier,
Random House Children's Books, London ISBN: 0099220822
Kubler, Annie c2000, My New Baby,
Child's Play (International) Ltd., Swindon ISBN 0859539741
Manning, M, Granstrom, B 2000, Supermum,
Franklin Watts Australia, Lane Cove ISBN: 074963393X
Manning, M, Granstrom, B 2004, The World is Full of Babies!,
Franklin Watts, London ISBN: 0749656891
Meredith, S 1991, Where Do Babies Come From?,
Usbourne Publishing Ltd., London ISBN: 074600690X
Nilsson, L 1994, How Was I Born?,
Bantam Doubleday Dell, New York ISBN 0385313578
Pinczuk, J M 1988, Michele: the Nursing Toddler,
La Leche League International, Schaumberg, Illinois ISBN 0912500409
Ray, J (illust.) 1991, The Story of Christmas,
Orchard Books, London ISBN 1852132809
Wallace, K 2001, Mothers are Everywhere,
Oxford University Press, Oxford ISBN: 0192790579
Wolff, A 1988, Only the Cat Saw,
Penguin Books Ltd, New York ISBN 0140508538

Mothers Direct stock an increasing range of books where breastfeeding is portrayed as a natural part of family life. Visit the Mothers Direct Online Store - www.mothersdirect.com.au


This article is based on the findings of a survey Helen Jeffcoat and Emily Dickson presented to the International Breastfeeding Conference in Hobart in September 2005 Pictures of infant feeding in children's literature, available in the conference proceedings.


  1. Lasky, Kathryn, 2005, Love That Baby!, Walker Books, London
  2. Murkoff, Heidi, 2001, What to Expect When the New Baby Comes Home, Harper Collins Publishers, Sydney
  3. Australian Bureau of Statistics report on Breastfeeding in Australia, 17 September 2003, quoted in the Australian Breastfeeding Leadership Plan 2004, available at http://www.breastfeeding.asn.au/advocacy
  4. Graham, Bob, 2000, Brand New Baby, Walker Books, London
  5. Graham, Bob, 2001,The Red Woollen Blanket, Walker Books, London
  6. Janet and Allan Ahlberg, 1982, The Baby's Catalogue, Puffin Books, London
  7. Russell Hoban, 1964, A Baby Sister for Frances, Random House, London
  8. Heather Amery and Stephen Cartwright,1987, First 100 Words, Usborne Publishing Ltd, London
  9. Mairi Hedderwick, 1997, Katie Morag and the New Pier, Random House, London
  10. Mairi Hedderwick, 1997, Katie Morag and the Grand Concert, Random House, London
  11. Harry Horse, 2002, Little Rabbit Lost, Puffin Books, London
  12. Anne Gutman and Georg Hallensleben, 2001, Lili and the New Baby, Cat's Whiskers, London
  13. Debi Gliori, 2001, Mr Bear's Holiday and Mr Bear Babysits, Orchard Books Australia, Alexandria NSW
  14. Harriet Ziefert and Emilie Boon,1997, Little Hippo's New Baby, Dorling Kindersley Ltd, London
  15. Valiska Gregory and Bruce Degen, 2002, Shirley's Wonderful Baby, HarperCollins
  16. Marjorie Newman, 2004, Captain Pike Looks After the Baby, Macmillan Children's Books, London