Why Some Women Decide Not to Breastfeed

Mother bottle feeding their baby

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For some women, the decision to breastfeed is an easy one. But, for others, there are health, financial, practical, informational, physical, or emotional barriers that may make the choice more complicated. Below are some of the reasons why some women choose not to breastfeed.

Note that while experts such as the American Academy of Pediatrics, the National Institutes of Health, and the World Health Organization all recommend exclusive breastfeeding for a minimum of six months, the most important thing is that your baby is fed.

So, while breastfeeding is certainly encouraged, using formula instead is an acceptable option, too. Families should choose the feeding method that works best for them.

Changing Trends in Breastfeeding

Today, more and more women are breastfeeding. However, in the past, formula feeding was far more popular. Many new parent's own mothers used formula, and they may not understand the benefits of breastfeeding and sometimes may discourage the practice. They may have little or no experience with nursing a child, so they cannot offer advice, guidance, or help. Some communities may also have a bias against breastfeeding or stigma attached to the practice.

Also, sometimes partners and friends may not have enough information about breastfeeding to understand this choice. Partners may fear that breastfeeding will interfere with the couple's relationship or they may just think using formula will be easier. Since family members play a vital role in breastfeeding success, without their support many women may choose not to breastfeed.

Return to Work or School

It can be overwhelming to handle a new baby, family responsibilities, a home, and the additional stress of work or school. If the stress of pumping or breastfeeding feels overwhelming or frustrating for a woman, they may decide not to breastfeed. Additionally, regular pumping is not always feasible with every work or school schedule.

Influence of Healthcare Providers

Some healthcare professionals are not educated in breastfeeding techniques or how to handle breastfeeding issues. If the mother's or the baby's health care provider does not support or understand breastfeeding, any challenges that arise may not be adequately resolved or the mother may not be encouraged to continue to nurse.

Lack of Support

The truth is that for many women, getting breastfeeding established can be difficult, particularly without guidance on learning skills like latching, positioning, and preventing nipple pain and engorgement. Many first-time mothers do not have breastfeeding support once they leave the hospital. Sometimes, they don't even get much help while in the hospital either.

They may not know where to turn to for help or who to go to with questions if they run into problems. They also may not know how common it is to have some struggles or frustration as they learn to breastfeed. They may assume they aren't making enough milk, even if they are, which is called perceived insufficient milk supply. If women are not given follow-up instructions and information on the resources available, they may be more likely to give up on breastfeeding.

Financial Barriers

Lactation specialists and pump rentals can be expensive. If women will need to pump and do not know where to go for assistance or do not qualify for programs such as WIC, then they may not be able to afford to get the help they need to continue to breastfeed.

However, it's worth noting that in the long run breastfeeding tends to be much less expensive than using formula. Aside from any pumping supplies, which not all women even need, breastfeeding is free.

Personal Issues

Awkwardness, body image issues, stigma, fear, and lack of confidence can all contribute to negative feelings about breastfeeding, says Dr. Tamika Auguste, an OB/GYN practicing in Washington, D.C. "Modesty is personal," she explains, but adds that there are many ways women can accommodate breastfeeding so that they may feel more comfortable, such as using cloth coverings or doing it in private.

Concerns about exposing the breasts to nurse can make women feel uncomfortable. When thoughts of breastfeeding are embarrassing, uncomfortable, or shameful, it is more likely a woman will decide against breastfeeding. Additionally, some women see breasts as sexual objects and may have a hard time getting past that.

Health Concerns

Even though women with many types of health issues can breastfeed and are often encouraged to do so, it can still be difficult. Research shows that obstacles to breastfeeding are often confused with contraindications. In most cases, women can breastfeed but it may be challenging. Certain health conditions can cause a low milk supply, or a mom might worry about the medications that they have to take and how they may affect their baby. It can be overwhelming and exhausting.

Women who have had breast cancer may not be able to breastfeed after radiation therapy or a mastectomy. Plus, there are some health-related issues, such as HIV infection, when breastfeeding is not recommended.

A Word From Verywell

It is important to understand why some women decide not to breastfeed. In some situations, the barriers can be overcome and women can go on to breastfeed successfully. But, not always—and it's also a personal choice that should be respected. When women choose to give their child formula instead of nursing, they still need support.

"We need to educate women about the benefits of breastfeeding, but also emphasize that if you can't breastfeed [for whatever reason], your baby will be just fine," says Dr. Auguste.

Women who breastfeed should not pass judgment against women who decide not to breastfeed or vice versa. As mothers, we all need to be understanding of each other's choices and support each other no matter which method of feeding (or parenting) we choose. Ultimately, we all want the same thing—to have happy, healthy children.

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Article Sources
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Additional Reading
  • American Academy of Pediatrics. New Mother’s Guide To Breastfeeding. Bantam Books. New York. 2011.
  • Lawrence, Ruth A., MD, Lawrence, Robert M., MD. Breastfeeding A Guide For The Medical Profession Seventh Edition.  Mosby. 2011.