‘Off to the best start’?

A multimodal critique of breast and formula feeding health promotional discourse


  • Gavin Brookes University of Nottingham
  • Kevin Harvey University of Nottingham
  • Louise Mullany University of Nottingham




infant nutrition, breastfeeding, motherhood, neoliberalism, health promotion, multimodal critical discourse analysis


This study critically examines the multimodal discourses of baby-feeding practices in contemporary health promotion in the UK. Comparing two parallel texts from the ongoing Start4life campaign (one dedicated to breastfeeding, the other to bottle/formula feeding), our multimodal critical discourse analysis identifies a series of recurring, multisemiotic strategies through which these texts aim to promote breastfeeding as the most desirable, natural and even morally responsible method of infant nutrition. These discursive strategies, we argue, are underpinned and driven by neoliberal assumptions about infant feeding, health and risk, which fail to take into account the structural constraints that affect the take-up of the ‘ideal’ of breastfeeding, all the while propagating unobtainable and often contradictory notions of total motherhood and familial relations - discursive moves that can have negative consequences for the health and wellbeing of new mothers and their infants.

Author Biographies

Gavin Brookes, University of Nottingham

Gavin Brookes is research fellow in the Centre for Research in Applied Linguistics (CRAL) in the School of English, University of Nottingham, UK. His research interests include corpus linguistics, discourse analysis, multimodality and health communication.

Kevin Harvey, University of Nottingham

Kevin Harvey is lecturer in sociolinguistics in the School of English, University of Nottingham, UK. His specific research interest is in the area of discourse-based health communication, which includes corpus linguistic and multimodal approaches to health-related discourse.

Louise Mullany, University of Nottingham

Louise Mullany is professor of sociolinguistics in the School of English, University of Nottingham, UK. She has published widely in the area of language and gender research and recent book publications include Language, Gender and Feminism: Theory, Methodology and Practice, with Sara Mills (Routledge). She specialises in sociolinguistic investigations of gender and language in professional settings including healthcare, businesses and organisations.


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How to Cite

Brookes, G., Harvey, K., & Mullany, L. (2016). ‘Off to the best start’? A multimodal critique of breast and formula feeding health promotional discourse. Gender and Language, 10(3), 340–363. https://doi.org/10.1558/genl.v10i3.32035