Exclusive breast-feeding may just be too hard, study says

Mother breastfeeding baby girl (1-3 months) msnbc.com stock photography
Mother breastfeeding baby girl (1-3 months) msnbc.com stock photographyAndersen Ross / Today

By Rita Rubin

Exclusively breast-feeding for at least the first six months of a baby’s life, as recommended by the World Health Organization and many governments, might be more of an idealistic goal than a realistic one, according to a small Scottish study out Wednesday.

As evidence of breast-feeding’s health benefits continues to grow, the rate of 6-month-old babies who’ve been exclusively breast-fed -- no other fluids or solids, not even water -- has increased in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The 2011 rate was 14.8 percent, up 4 percentage points from the 2007 rate, the year the CDC issued its first breast-feeding “report card.” That’s still well below the 25.5 percent target in the government’s “Healthy People 2020” report.

Reaching that target may be more difficult than expected, however, because of both the expectations and reality surrounding nursing, according to the CDC’s 2011 report card -- and the research published in the journal BMJ Open.

“A woman’s ability to reach her breast-feeding goals is affected by a host of factors including support from her family, community, employer and health system,” according to the CDC.

The Scottish researchers interviewed 36 pregnant women and a significant other, usually their partner or mother, before and up to six months after they gave birth. All of the women except one who had nursed a previous baby said they intended to breast-feed.

In the interviews, the researchers asked what it would take for women to breast-feed exclusively for six months and, if applicable, why they stopped.

Several women said they felt breast-feeding didn’t live up to the hype they heard while pregnant. “The way it’s kind of promoted sometimes, it’s a lovely bonding experience,” said one woman three weeks after her baby’s birth, by which point she had introduced formula along with breast milk.

But, she said, “when you come home, then you feel guilty yourself because you think, ‘well, I’m not having this bonding and lovely experience. I’m having, you know, a kind of hard, sore experience.”

Other study participants said they lacked breast-feeding support in the hospital after they gave birth, the researchers write. According to the CDC, more U.S. babies are born in hospitals that have made special efforts to support breastfeeding than ever before. Still, though, fewer than 5 percent actually do, the government says.

“Breast-feeding is not rocket science until it is,” says doula and lactation educator Desirre Andrews, the mother of four children ages 10 to 16 in Colorado Springs, Colo. “I think women need to be listened to as to what they need to succeed.”

Instead of feeling overwhelmed about the prospect of breast-feeding exclusively for six months, Andrews says she advises women to “look at it as one feeding at a time. What can you do today?”

Dr. Richard Schanler, who chairs the American Academy of Pediatrics’ section on breast-feeding, has heard the Scottish moms’ complaints before. But, Schanler says, that’s no reason for his organization and others to quit recommending breast-feeding exclusively for at least six months.

 “We sometimes take it for granted that women that women know how to breast-feed and leave them alone,” says Schanler, a professor of pediatrics at the Hofstra University School of Medicine. “That’s absolutely wrong. Everyone needs help and support, some more than others.”

What about you? Did you find it impossible to breastfeed exclusively for your baby’s first six months? What might have helped you breastfeed longer? Tell us on the TODAYMoms Facebook page.

More TODAY Moms stories on breast-feeding:

Co-nursing conundrum: Are four breasts better than two?

Should breast-feeding be shown on Sesame Street?

Dairy Queen? Milk Jugs? What's your favorite breast-feeding name?