OBJECTIVE: to explore the use of language by midwives reporting their experiences of baby-feeding practice. DESIGN: A qualitative approach incorporating a secondary analysis of data previously collected in a study based on grounded theory principles. Data were collected using in-depth interviews. The secondary analysis involved a content analysis method. SETTING: two maternity services in the north of England. PARTICIPANTS: 30 midwives who worked across all clinical areas. FINDINGS: these midwives' explanations of how they supported women with baby feeding suggest that they used language to direct women towards decisions that the midwives thought best, without prior exploration of the woman's understanding and beliefs of baby feeding. Women were often described as 'girls' and 'ladies' indicating the power differentials in their relationship. The midwives were aware that, at times, the language they used was contradictory to woman-centred maternity care. KEY CONCLUSIONS: language may be used to control childbearing women and direct them to decisions that the midwife wants, rather than enabling the woman to make her own decisions. The terms used by midwives to relate to women, such as 'girls' and 'ladies', may be a strategy used to improve a midwife's perception of her status in maternity care. IMPLICATIONS FOR PRACTICE: language may be used to undermine women. It is important that the language used when interacting with women is considered carefully in order to facilitate an unbiased perspective and to promote partnership. The word 'women', rather than 'girls' or 'ladies', should be used when referring to users of the maternity services.