Barriers to breastfeeding: the reasons why women stop

Breastfeeding

As part of our campaign for Better Postnatal Care, we conducted a survey among Mumsnet users asking for your experiences of breastfeeding. One of the things we wanted to know was what made you stop – either in the very early days, or by six weeks after birth. Here are the main breastfeeding barriers we've identified from your responses. What do you think? Have we missed any?

Difficulty breastfeeding

It may be natural, but it ain't always easy. If you find breastfeeding really difficult, you are NOT alone.

  • 50% of women who tried to establish breastfeeding in the first 24 hours after birth said they found it difficult, with 21% saying they found it 'extremely difficult or problematic'.
  • Of those who wanted to breastfeed but stopped within the first 24 hours, 22% said 'it just felt incredibly difficult' and 27% said they felt they didn't know what they were doing.
  • Among those who were still breastfeeding at six weeks, 42% said they were still finding it tricky, and 26% said 'it's really hard – I'm not sure I can carry on.'

First-time mothers are much more likely to encounter problems. So, give a hearty facepalm to anyone who tells you you should be picking it up without a hitch. And don’t hesitate to reach out for support. You can find some links here, ring your midwife, try out Public Health England's Facebook chatbot if you're in the south-east of England (search Facebook Messenger for 'Start4Life Breastfeeding Friend'), and remember that the stalwarts on our Breast and Bottle Feeding Talk topic are always around for a virtual cuppa and some support and advice, even when it's 3am and you can't work out how to do up the hooks on your maternity bra.

Pain while breastfeeding

'If it hurts, you're doing it wrong'. You may have heard this, but generations of women who have breastfed are here to tell you that it is – to use a technical term – nonsense. Breastfeeding often hurts in the early days, and it doesn't necessarily mean you're doing it wrong. FACT.

  • Of those who wanted to breastfeed but stopped within the first 24 hours, 15% said 'it was too physically painful'.
  • Among those who were still breastfeeding at six weeks, 31% said 'it hurts or feels uncomfortable.'
  • Among those who had stopped breastfeeding by six weeks, 39% said 'breastfeeding was painful'.
  • Among all women who breastfed for any length of time, 53% said that painful sensations had caused them difficulty at some stage.

If the thought of your baby going anywhere near your poor boobs makes you want to cry, getting a friendly breastfeeding professional to check things out can be a good idea – and Mumsnetters absolutely swear by Lansinoh nipple cream. If all is well, the sensations should settle down after a few weeks.

Worries about breastfeeding

Anxious about breastfeeding? Worried you won't be able to? Convinced you're doing it all wrong? Join the club.

  • Just before birth, 47% of women were worried they wouldn't be able to breastfeed, and 36% felt anxious about it.
  • When their baby was six weeks old, 21% of women said they felt anxious about baby feeding issues, 20% said they felt guilty, 18% said they were worried their decision was not the best one for their baby, and 17% said they felt sad.
  • Among all women who had breastfed for any length of time, 34% had been concerned at some point about the impact of breastfeeding on their mental health.

Feeding your baby is a big deal, no doubt about it. Take a deep breath, get a hug from your significant other/mum/dog/best mate, and tell yourself that being worried is normal. However, if your anxiety feels like more than you can cope with, or if you are at all worried about your wellbeing, reach out to your GP or midwife. You can check out postnatal mental wellbeing support resources here.

Pressure to breastfeed

Almost every pregnant woman hears, loudly and clearly, about the importance of breastfeeding for their baby's health and for their own health. Sometimes, this starts to feel like pressure.

My baby had tongue tie and there was too much pressure from healthcare workers. Not support, just pressure.

  • Just before birth, 33% said they felt a lot of pressure to breastfeed. Of those who tried to establish breastfeeding in the first 24 hours after birth, 32% said they felt a lot of pressure too.
  • When their baby was six weeks old, 16% of women said they felt under pressure about baby feeding.
  • Among those who were still breastfeeding at six weeks, 25% said they felt under a lot of pressure to carry on.

Women who feel pressured to breastfeed are – surprise! – much less likely to do it. So if you're a grandparent, a partner or a healthcare worker, think carefully about whether you're offering support and kind advice, or are just heaping on the pressure. If it's the latter, you are not – repeat, not – helping.

Bad latch and not enough milk

The two technical biggies: so many mums are worried that the baby isn't latching on properly, and/or that they aren't producing enough milk.

  • Of those who wanted to breastfeed but stopped within the first 24 hours, 41% said their baby couldn't latch on or that the latch was bad.
  • Of those who had stopped by six weeks, 56% said they were worried their baby wasn't latching on properly, and 42% were worried they weren't producing enough milk.
  • Among women who had breastfed for any length of time, 51% had at some stage been concerned about the baby being unable to latch on, or not getting enough milk.

Babies don't come with see-through tummies, so it can feel really difficult to know whether they're full. The NHS has good advice about this here. For latch advice, try to get face-to-face advice from a healthcare worker or breastfeeding counsellor; 45% of those who breastfed at any stage said that in-person observation of the latch helped them to succeed.

Breastfeeding support

Breastfeeding support from official healthcare workers is a mixed bag. Some are brilliant, some aren't – and many are just too rushed off their feet delivering babies to be able to give the kind of focussed support new mothers need.

My baby was born with multiple allergies, which meant that despite breast feeding every 10 minutes, she was classed as failure to thrive. We got no primary care help. I was heartbroken, felt like a failure.
  • Among women who tried to establish breastfeeding in the first 24 hours after birth, 51% rated healthcare support as brilliant or good, but 29% rated it poor or terrible.
  • Spouses and partners are the best for support – rated good or brilliant by 81% of mothers – but won't often have the expertise needed to sort a painful latch, or know what to suggest when your breasts feel like watermelons.
  • A whopping 74% of mothers agreed that 'There's too much emphasis on telling women why they should breastfeed, and not enough on supporting them to breastfeed.'
  • Of those who were still breastfeeding at six weeks, 71% said face-to-face support from healthcare professionals or breastfeeding counsellors had helped them, and 67% had been helped by videos – so if all else fails, get on YouTube (just choose your search terms carefully).
  • Among women who had stopped breastfeeding by six weeks, 20% said they couldn't get face-to-face breastfeeding support when they needed it.

Feeling embarrassed while breastfeeding

Just your father-in-law, studying the ceiling, while you flail around with your baps out, trying to get your little bundle of joy to latch on. Sound familiar? Yup. Are you a bad mother for feeling embarrassed? Hell no!

Among those who were still breastfeeding at six weeks:

  • 36% said breastfeeding in public was embarrassing;
  • 34% said breastfeeding in front of family and in-laws was embarrassing;
  • 22% said breastfeeding in front of friends was embarrassing.

It's a tricky one. If it really makes you cringe, reach for a muslin or a breastfeeding cover-up – whatever you need to get you through. Restaurants and family-friendly businesses may have special breastfeeding rooms you can use, although sadly these are often scented with eau de nappy bin. If you're in your own home, don't be afraid to ask people to give you half an hour of privacy.

Being overwhelmed about breastfeeding

You've carried a baby for nine months, you've just given birth, you haven't slept properly for weeks, you’re probably sore, and suddenly you're responsible for a tiny human who cries whenever you put them down. You may be wondering whether you could just go back to work on Monday and forget about this whole thing. Let's just say, you're entitled to feel that it's all getting a bit much.

Anxiety disorder made me doubt everything. I decided it was better to stop than be mentally unwell.
  • Among all women who breastfed for any length of time, 45% said they had found it difficult when the baby breastfed constantly or very frequently, and 55% said they had found it difficult at times to cope with the impact of breastfeeding on their sleeping patterns.
  • Among women who had stopped breastfeeding by six weeks, 34% said they felt 'overwhelmed or exhausted, and something had to give'.

Join the discussion about the survey results here.

Again – if you're at all worried about your mental wellbeing, please reach out to your GP or midwife. Looking after your own mental health is more important than anything else. If you're confident it's more a case of standard new-mother frazzlement, come join the rest of us on Mumsnet Talk and welcome to the club!