Why women stop breastfeeding

Mother breastfeeding newborn

Our new survey has uncovered what mothers really think about breastfeeding – and what makes them stop

The UK's low breastfeeding rates are not down to women not wanting to breastfeed, according a new Mumsnet survey. Public Health England estimates that just 44% of mothers are still breastfeeding when their baby is six-eight weeks old, and The Lancet estimates that just 0.5% are breastfeeding when their baby is a year old – thought to be one of the lowest figures internationally.

Among women who had wanted to breastfeed but had stopped within the first 24 hours, their reasons for stopping included:

  • The baby could not latch well: 41%
  • I felt I didn't know what I was doing: 27%
  • I needed more help/support: 23%
  • It just felt incredibly difficult: 22%
  • Too physically painful: 15%

Among women who had initiated breastfeeding but had stopped by six weeks, their reasons for stopping included:

  • The baby wasn't latching on properly: 56%
  • Worried I wasn't producing enough milk: 42%
  • Breastfeeding was painful: 39%
  • I was overwhelmed/exhausted and something had to give: 34%
  • I found it difficult to express milk: 32%
  • I was worried the baby wasn't gaining enough weight: 24%
Newborn baby being breastfed

Low breastfeeding rates are not down to women not wanting to breastfeed. Asked how they felt directly before their baby was born, a huge 87% of respondents said they wanted to breastfeed (just 6% actively did not), and 92% tried to establish breastfeeding when their baby was born.

But wanting to breastfeed, the survey shows, does not necessarily correlate with feeling relaxed, positive and well-prepared. Just ahead of the birth:

  • 33% said they felt a lot of pressure to breastfeed
  • 47% were worried they would not be able to breastfeed
  • 36% said they felt anxious about breastfeeding

The problems begin almost immediately after birth. 50% of women who tried to establish breastfeeding within the first 24 hours after birth say they found it 'difficult or problematic'.

Many women have their expectations raised by pro-breastfeeding messaging – but report that the practical, hands-on help given after birth just doesn't match up. 74% of respondents agreed with the statement: 'There is too much emphasis on telling women why they should breastfeed, and not enough on support them to breastfeed.'
I eventually managed to breastfeed beyond 24 hours but it remained problematic for 11 weeks!
Partners and spouses are overwhelmingly positive about breastfeeding; their support was rated very highly at 81%. But while the support of healthcare professionals was rated 'excellent' or 'good' by 51%, 29% rated it 'poor' or 'terrible'. Women who felt pressured to breastfeed were significantly over-represented among those who did not establish breastfeeding within the first 24 hours. Among those who were still breastfeeding at six weeks, face-to-face support from healthcare professionals or breastfeeding counsellors was rated the most effective intervention, with 71% saying it contributed to their success.

Pain should not be underestimated as a factor that causes women to stop. Despite hearing that 'if it hurts, you're doing it wrong', many women found breastfeeding painful at first. Even among those who were still breastfeeding at six weeks, 31% agreed that 'breastfeeding hurts/is uncomfortable'. Concerns about poor latch and milk supply also run throughout the survey results.
I wasn't prepared for what to expect. I thought I would be fine after a couple of days, but I honestly couldn't stand the pain and gave up.
Among those who had stopped breastfeeding by six weeks, 34% agreed 'I was overwhelmed/exhausted and something had to give', and 22% agreed that 'breastfeeding felt relentless'. Among all those who breastfed at any stage, 45% reported finding it difficult during 'periods when the baby breastfed constantly or very frequently'.

Perhaps not surprisingly, women who had breastfed before were significantly more positive and relaxed about breastfeeding subsequent children. When compared with first-time mums, veteran breastfeeders were more likely to want to breastfeed (92% vs 87%), less likely to feel pressured to breastfeed (21% vs 39%), and felt much more confident directly before the birth about breastfeeding (54% vs 30%) – suggesting that more focussed practical and emotional support for first-time mothers could help more women to establish the breastfeeding habit.

Mumsnet CEO and Founder Justine Roberts said: “These figures illustrate what Mumsnet users have said for years: there's no sense in endlessly telling women that they must breastfeed, but letting them down when they have a baby in their arms. Breastfeeding is a skill, and most mothers need immediate and unstinting support when they hit a problem, especially given that they are often shattered, sore and sleep-deprived. The guilt, anger and sadness experienced by many mothers who switch from breastfeeding is palpable, and it's deeply unfair to leave so many feeling that they've failed.”

Find out more and get support from Mumsnet users on our breast and bottle feeding forum.