Why New Mothers Stop Breast-Feeding

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While nearly all mothers start breast-feeding their newborns, about half stop after a few weeks. The latest study explains why.

A team of researchers conducted over 2,700 interviews with 532 first-time mothers multiple times after they gave birth, starting 24 hours after delivery and ending at 60 days postpartum, about their breast-feeding choices. They report in the journal Pediatrics that women who worried from the start about their ability to nurse their infants were more likely to switch to formula sooner than those who didn’t have these concerns.

(MORE: Is the Medical Community Failing Breast-Feeding Moms?)

By the third day after delivering, over half of these women were worried about their babies’ ability to latch on, while 44% were concerned about breast-feeding pain, and 40% about their capacity to produce enough milk to nourish their infants.

These results support earlier studies that found that new moms often don’t have proper support and education about breast-feeding, which can lead to anxiety and a greater likelihood of stopping nursing. In January, TIME reported that hospitals may not offer women the resources they need to encourage women and address their anxiety:

Lactation is probably the only bodily function for which modern medicine has almost no training, protocol or knowledge. When women have trouble breast-feeding, they’re either prodded to try harder by well-meaning lactation consultants or told to give up by doctors. They’re almost never told, “Perhaps there’s an underlying medical problem — let’s do some tests.”

When women have trouble breast-feeding, they are often confronted with two divergent directives: well-meaning lactation consultants urge them to try harder, while some doctors might advise them to simply give up and go the bottle-and-formula route. “We just give women a pat on the head and tell them their kids will be fine” if they don’t breast-feed, says Dr. Alison Stuebe, an OB who treats breast-feeding problems in North Carolina. “Can you imagine if we did that to men with erectile dysfunction?”

(MORE: 20 Ways to Make Breast-Feeding Easier)

The very public controversy over breast-feeding in public may also exacerbate matters, adding pressure on new mothers who struggle to get comfortable with nursing. The authors of the current study say that more efforts should be concentrated on the final days of pregnancy to answer women’s questions and reduce any anxiety they may have about the process. Building that confidence could help more women stick with breast-feeding, which has been linked to a lower risk of obesity, higher IQ and greater social status among children, and lower risk of cancer for moms.