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Whose Failure Is It?

April 2018

Having recently read "Birthing Failure: Childbirth as a Female Fault Line”¹ and knowing that research shows that women remember their childbirth and lactation experiences for a lifetime, I began to think about the word "failure”. Webster defines failure as lacking success, falling short, or a state of inability to perform a normal function.² Many mothers describe their birthing or breastfeeding experiences as failures, as demonstrated in the Schneider research. Dr. Schneider reports, "Overwhelmingly attributing the failures to themselves... participants reported that they experienced failures of mind, body, action/inaction, representing 'what I feel', 'who I am', and 'what I did or didn't do',” (p 22). This stereotypical female trait to blame themselves for not being able to obtain the desired results is strongly shown in this article.

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That gives me cause to stop and really look at the picture more closely. How much of the failure is truly caused by the mother, and how much is caused by the healthcare system in which she delivers? Part of the aim of becoming a Baby-Friendly Hospital is to promote, protect, and support breastfeeding, and the consequences of a birthing "failure” can be far-reaching and include breastfeeding initiation, exclusivity, and duration. "Although discussing and acknowledging distressful birth experiences helps women process their experiences, women may not feel comfortable voicing their distress out of fear that their concerns will not be taken seriously,” (Schneider, p 21). Several topics within this research caught my eye:

  • The disparity of how mothers view their birth experience vs. how healthcare providers view it.
  • The portrayal of traumatic birth experiences as "routine”.
  • The apparent lack of attention paid to the psychological needs of women during their birthing experience.
  • Institutionalized violence perceived by the birthing mother due to her treatment within the hospital setting.
  • The sense of pressure mothers put on themselves to birth "right” and "perfectly”.
  • The mothers' feelings that interventions were caused by their own actions or inaction.
  • And that failures extended beyond just the birth, into breastfeeding and bonding, with lifetime implications for both mother and infant.

Given these issues, I'd ask you to consider several questions.

  1. How do we as clinicians set mothers up for failure or success during their prenatal childbirth and breastfeeding classes?
  2. What normal or simple routines do we as clinicians impose within the birthing facility that take away the mothers' power and increase her feelings of vulnerability?
  3. Do we "just follow protocol” or do we truly assist mothers in informed decision-making during labor, delivery, and breastfeeding?
  4. Do we give mothers the right to say no to something we would consider a norm in the birthing process?
  5. How can we change the system's status quo to improve birthing and breastfeeding and thereby reduce maternal blame and self-imposed guilt?

Think about these things and use them to initiate conversations among your birth facility staff. Determine if your answers might be used as a quality initiative project for the unit or to make policy/protocol changes that could improve birthing, breastfeeding, and patient care.


Kathy Parkes, MSN-Ed, BSPsy, RN, IBCLC, RLC, FILCA

Professional Development Educator



1. Schneider, D.A. (2018). Birthing Failures: Childbirth as a Female Fault Line. The Journal of Perinatal Education 27(1); 20-31.

2. Webster's Online Dictionary. Downloaded 3/20/18 from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/failure.


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