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New Mothers: A Missed Opportunity?

Baby holding mothers fingerIn this HartBeat, Hartman Retainer Services (HRS) ethnographer and trend-watcher Helen Lundell describes the world of new mothers from a personal perspective. In keeping with the focus of HRS, which seeks to unwind the consumer story behind trends, behaviors and opportunities in the world of fast-moving consumer products, Helen describes how few of her needs as a new mother are actually met by today’s retailers and manufacturers, especially from the perspective of health, nutrition and food and beverage choices. 

Historically, marketing to moms has been a favorite topic for marketers, since in days past, iconic “moms” controlled nearly all tasks associated with the cooking, shopping and meal preparation of modern households. We’ve cautioned marketers to look well beyond moms to include the diverse household picture that’s a reality today, and yet, ironically, new moms might be a missed opportunity: as Helen points out, new moms needs assistance with a myriad of choices that relate to nutrition, health and wellness, all of which reveal opportunities to innovate and develop new consumer products.

New mothers, who are so self-consciously at a prominent turning point in their lives, have a unique and sensitive relationship with food. As they become directly responsible for not only their own well-being but that of their child, they are constantly bombarded with new cause to get acquainted with the minutiae of what’s in their food. They are forced to make decisions based on complex and incomplete information, all while learning to forge an entirely new path through the hours of the day (and often battling with baby to find a time to eat at all).

What they learn, the decisions they make and the habits they form in that period have the potential to alter the trajectory of their purchase decisions for the rest of their lives. As such, for retailers and manufacturers, understanding and helping new mothers and their families could not only offer support to a group of people who need support but could represent a significant opportunity to lay the groundwork for that increasingly elusive brand loyalty. Here, based on my own experience as a new mom and that of my own social networks, I’ll lay out three of the biggest sources of food stress for new nursing mothers and consider what implications we might be able to draw for the food and beverage industry.

food is a big deal for new mothersSo why is food a big deal for new mothers? Perhaps the biggest surprise is that food doesn’t get easier after pregnancy. While sharing a bloodstream with baby and avoiding the ever-growing list of pregnancy no-no’s, mothers-to-be envision a post-birth carefree, champagne-, lox-, hot dog-, coffee-based feast in which they can finally eat (and drink) whatever they want without fear of harm or judgment. They’ve even been told that they’ll have the additional margin of burning 300–500 extra calories per day for milk production, into which they can squeeze in an extra slice of cake. The reality, however, is quite different. Why? Because:

1) The Baby Needs To Eat

Recent years have seen a big movement to get mothers breastfeeding more and relying on formula less. There’s little dispute that this is A Good Thing, as breastfeeding is associated with better health outcomes for baby on multiple fronts. As a result, breastfeeding rates have improved. According to the CDC’s 2014 Breastfeeding Report Card, U.S. National “Ever breastfed” rate for babies is currently at 79%, with 49% still breastfed at six months.

This campaign has resulted in the provision of increasingly excellent support for mothers battling the much-harder-than-it-really-should-be demands of breastfeeding (hospitals providing lactation specialists and skin-to-skin contact at birth, etc.). Social reinforcement around breastfeeding has also strengthened; public breastfeeding is less of a jaw-dropper, and women are empowered and proud to be able to say they exclusively breastfeed, telling battle stories of their perseverance through both physical hardship and intense inconvenience (e.g., pain, embarrassment, pumping in parking lots…).

However, the dark side of this positive upswing is the (arguably) over-stigmatization of formula and mothers who use it (too lazy? not willing to stay the course?) and the ‘winning streak’ mentality of exclusive breastfeeders, resulting in the associated sense of ‘failure’ at having to ‘resort to’ formula, even when physical or emotional burdens might suggest that it is the more sensible course.

As such, women are under a lot of pressure to try everything possible to keep feeding, and this is where diet comes into play. One of the biggest challenges many mothers face is the vagaries of the ebbs and flows of milk production: making enough (so baby puts on enough weight) of the ‘right type’ (enough fat? enough nutrients?) and at the right time (day and night, so baby has energy to play and satisfaction to sleep), particularly once mothers return to work.

And so as mothers cast about for some control over their baby not gaining weight quite fast enough or the pumped bottle that’s only half as full as it should be, they find themselves (and others) turning their gaze to their diet with a ‘food as medicine’ mentality. Suddenly, they are on the receiving end of a plethora of wisdom on ‘galactogogues,’ or milk-promoting foods. Beyond eating ‘enough’ and ‘well,’ in general, these include water (most importantly), huge doses of fenugreek, lactation tea, lactation cookies, oatmeal, fennel, papaya, sesame seeds, ginger … and to the stressed mothers’ horror, some of those pregnancy no-no’s (now virtually the foundation of parental survival) suddenly reemerge: caffeine, alcohol and chocolate (for their potential to dehydrate or interfere with the milk ‘let down’ reflex).

motivator for evolution in wellness views and practices
And this is not the end of the list of diet-related considerations …

2) Nursing Babies Eat What Mom Eats, Sort Of

While the impact is not as profound as when pregnant, when nursing, the baby is still eating what Mom’s eating. As such, with attention turning increasingly to diet as the source of all ills, many baby behaviors that could be interpreted as ‘issues’ (often the same behaviors associated with ‘being a baby,’ e.g., crying, spitting up, not sleeping) now come packaged with a grain of suspicion as to whether their ‘problem’ is due to something Mom ate.

The classic debate still rages around alcohol consumption. While binge drinking should still definitely be off the table (for more reasons than alcohol transfer to baby), the most recent review on the topic suggests that moms really shouldn’t worry about having one or two drinks, as the concentration baby receives is so small (Kasstrup, Pottegard, Damkier, 2013, “Alcohol and Breastfeeding,” Basic & Clinical Pharmacology & Toxicology). However, for many moms, the stigma and the status quo prevail as they choose to either ‘pump and dump’ after drinking or wait for three hours before nursing after a single drink, to ensure that every last drop of alcohol has left their system (hence, the popularity of ‘test strips’ with which mothers can test the alcohol content of their milk before feeding baby). Caffeine is typically regarded as a much lesser evil but is subject to similar arguments.

Following in the footsteps of the trend for free-from diets for adults’ own well-being, the usual suspects of dairy, soy, wheat, eggs, corn and peanuts are also top of the list as candidates for exclusion for nursing mothers with babies with inflammatory, allergic and gastrointestinal issues. The sense, also, that Western pediatricians are holding back (intentionally or as victims of the culture in which they have been trained) simple natural remedies in favor of more mechanical interventions prevails among Health + Wellness-oriented mothers. As such, some moms are going it alone, or with support from their naturopaths, to manage the situation.

Of course, the challenges of elimination diets in adults are magnified in their effects on breastfed babies, as the duration between dose and response is often unknown and the ‘eliminated’ substances often take weeks to entirely leave Mom’s system, during which time the baby has had three more weeks of life and a multitude of other factors have changed dramatically. For Mom, the elimination diet is at least a means of feeling active and in control of a complex, distressing situation. However, the multiple levels of uncertainty in the experiment often leave mothers eyeing all foods with suspicion as they search for a coherent narrative of causality.

And then there’s the organic question. As families are barraged with new baby-related expenses, they also feel under pressure to buy only organic offerings, for the sake of the baby, just in case.

3) Moms Are Supposed To Be Trying To Lose Weight

Perhaps the most talked about of these three sources of food stress — on top of all the baby maintenance, sleep deprivation, often ravenous hunger and new identity negotiation — new mothers feel the eyes of society on their waistlines. The time between when mothers leave the delivery room and when they feel is the ‘acceptable time’ to start losing weight is … short. As such, making food choices of quality and quantity to support weight loss seeps into all other decision making.


This is not all to suggest that new mothers are walking around paralyzed with anxiety about their food choices; it’s just that they’ve clearly “got a lot going on.” Talking about marketing to this group is rather fraught with moral pitfalls. New parents already feel manipulated by marketers capitalizing on the perfect storm of a near-vertical learning curve, sleep deprivation, constant change, too much advice, too little consensus and an almost oppressive devotion that leaves new parents reaching for something tangible and ‘definitely right’ to grasp onto (the proxy for which often ends up being ‘the most expensive thing, because then at least I’ll feel like I’ve given all I can, even if it’s wrong’).

However, it is possible to recognize and address the needs of new mothers and their families without exploitation, by making services, guidance and community readily available when they need it, where they need it — in other words, by building trust. For example, just as PCC Natural Markets in Seattle offers “Walk, Talk and Taste” tours for those choosing to shop gluten-free, so other retailers could do a guide to the store from the perspective of a pregnant woman or new mother. Provide venues for lactation consultants to speak to groups. Make shopping easier for women by offering a private nursing space.

Manufacturers would also be well-advised to stay current on where their product falls within pregnancy, nursing and new-mom guidelines so that they can speak directly to their brand’s potential benefits or offer helpful alternatives if they fall ‘on the wrong side’ of the guidelines. Of course, making products that are ‘real,’ heavily vetted for those nursing, easily edible with one hand, but not extraordinarily expensive, would be the holy grail.

Ultimately, from my own perspective, even as a mother who has a lot of support, I am currently more grateful than ever to businesses that make my life easier and help me with the decisions I have to make in my diet and beyond. However, there really haven’t been very many! This seems like a missed opportunity for the food businesses in my life, particularly as interest in young Millennial families is on the rise and ‘Mom’ has a history of being seen as “the archetypal shopper.”

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As leaders in the study of American food culture, The Hartman Group has been tracking how Americans shop for food since the 1990s. From one-stop shopping to multichannel shopping to online markets and click-and-collect, we continue to track consumers’ evolving perceptions, needs, habits and relationships with food retailers. New to the 2017 report is a special section on the expansion of the discount grocery channel, the emerging fresh-format channel and smaller-footprint retail formats.


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