When breastfeeding doesn't work out

Here we talk about the experiences of women who very much wanted to breastfeed but were unable to do so. This was either because of unresolved difficulties with feeding or for medical reasons. The reasons why breastfeeding had become impossible included:
  • Painful breastfeeding
  • Low milk supply
  • Having had a caesarean section
  • Premature birth when the baby needed to spend time in an incubator
  • Latching problems including babies born with a cleft lip or palate
The lengths of time women were able to breastfeed or to express their milk varied a lot and depended on individual circumstances, but ranged from two weeks to several months. Some women used an electric pump to express their milk – an experience that Ruth and Lizzie described as ‘exhausting’. Ruth tried to breastfeed every time before bottle-feeding but her premature baby refused to breastfeed. Lizzie had such low milk supply that she spent much of her days and nights breastfeeding a baby who was always hungry, slept little and cried a lot. Jessy moved on to formula milk within the first month after the birth of both her children because - unknown to her at the time - she suffered from a condition known as “Raynaud’s phenomenon of the nipple”. Breastfeeding caused her nipples to crack and bleed to such an extent that it made breastfeeding a very painful experience (see Medical conditions that could affect breastfeeding).
Ruth, Jessy and Lizzie said that their determination to breastfeed despite their difficulties was driven by their own need to do what they saw as one of the main roles of being a mother. Women talked of feeling ‘like a failure’ or feeling ‘guilty’ because they were unable to breastfeed their babies. They felt that their breastfeeding experience was so very different to what they had expected. Looking back, women realised that they had held romanticised views and talked of having idealised images of feeding their babies without a care. An image they said that was somewhat reinforced by the information and advice available. Lizzie said that the parenting class she attended did not even mention the possibility of low breast milk supply but the emphasis was on good latching and the assumption was that the ‘you would be gushing buckets of milk’. Women felt that health information about breastfeeding needs to make women aware that they could face difficulties that could affect their ability to breastfeed.
Lizzie, Ruth and Jessy felt that some of the midwives and health visitors they met didn’t provide the support they needed at the time when they faced difficulties. They said that the importance of breastfeeding the baby was stressed and any difficulties were seen as short-lived. Being told ‘You must breastfeed’, or ‘breast milk is best for your baby’ or ‘the milk will come’ made them feel under pressure and their concerns overlooked. Lizzie said that she now knows that if the milk supply does not increase in the first six weeks after birth, there is little chance that it will happen at all. Maria Z, mother of a baby with a cleft palate said that the midwife was poorly informed to understand the reasons why she couldn’t breastfeed.
Women also received sympathetic advice from health professionals who helped them feel better about their decision to do mix feeding or to stop breastfeeding or expressing milk. Ruth said that with her second son she was encouraged to breastfeed but the emphasis was on feeding the baby well, not necessarily on breastfeeding.
Women said that, as first time mothers, they felt insecure and relied on others for advice and support. Women like Lizzie and Ruth said that it took time to feel in control and make decisions about what was best for their babies and for themselves. It was usually their partner who supported and to some extent, influenced the decision to mixed feed or change to formula milk. It was the partner who had witnessed the exhaustion and unhappiness caused by unresolved breastfeeding difficulties.
Women faced with breastfeeding difficulties felt there were no places to go to meet other mothers in similar situations in person. In their experience, baby clinics tend to be busy places with overstretched health visitors and they felt baby cafes do not necessarily welcome mothers who are mixed feeding or using baby formula.
The women we talked with wanted very much to breastfeed their children. Their experiences illustrate that they didn’t give up easily and went through great efforts to try and breastfeed successfully. This, despite the emotional strain and physical pain/exhaustion associated with problematic breastfeeding. (see also 'Medical conditions that can affect breastfeeding')

Topic added: September 2015.
Last reviewed November 2018.


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