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Why do some mums stop breastfeeding before 6 months?

Blog post | 29 Jul 2019

Most parents of newborn babies have heard that 'breast is best'. But although 96% of children are breastfed soon after birth, only 15% of mums are still breastfeeding exclusively 5 months later. So, what's preventing some parents from continuing to breastfeed, and how can they persist with longer-term breastfeeding, if that's their wish?

What the research says

According to the 2010 Australian national infant feeding survey (the most recent Australian research available), around 1 in 7 babies are still given only breastmilk at 5 months old. This is called 'exclusive breastfeeding'. Solid food is then typically introduced to babies' diets at around 6 months.

The survey, which involved more than 28,700 children, also found that by the time they are 6 months old, 4 in 10 babies are receiving no breastmilk at all.

What the guidelines say

Australia's dietary guidelines recommend exclusive breastfeeding of infants until they're 6 months old, with the introduction of solid foods at around 6 months, then to continue breastfeeding until the age of 12 months — and beyond, if it suits the mother and child.

Breastmilk is free and, for many parents, convenient. It can help protect infants against conditions such as diarrhoea, and respiratory and ear infections. Breastfeeding may also reduce the risk of obesity and chronic diseases in later life.

For mums, it may reduce the risk of some cancers and osteoporosis. Breastfeeding can promote bonding between mother and baby.

Why women stop breastfeeding

Continuing to breastfeed is a challenge for many mums, even if they're well aware of the guidelines and benefits, and have the best intentions. It's not always easy, and if their baby isn't attaching properly they can end up with cracked, bleeding or sore nipples and mastitis. Some women also experience engorgement or cluster feeding.

Poor attachment, "not enough breastmilk for the child", and an unsettled baby were the top reasons for ceasing to breastfeed cited in the Australian national infant feeding survey (by parents who stopped breastfeeding entirely before 6 months).

Out of milk: supply concerns

While having 'low supply' of milk is a common concern for breastfeeding mums, in many cases this may be a case of what they think is a low supply, rather than a real issue of low supply, according to the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP).

In other words, a mother may think she's not producing enough milk when she actually is. Most women are capable of breastfeeding.

In rare cases, a woman may have breasts that do not produce enough milk due to 'insufficient glandular tissue' (IGT), the tissue responsible for producing milk in the breast, reports the Australian Breastfeeding Association (ABA). Even if a woman has IGT, it is likely that she can still breastfeed her baby. Visit the ABA to read about options for women with confirmed IGT.

Low milk supply may also be caused by postpartum haemorrhage, retained placenta, maternal illness, past breast surgery, sleepiness or illness in an infant, infrequent feeds and poor attachment. But help is available to mothers and babies who wish to continue feeding.

How do I know if my baby is getting enough milk?

Here are 4 signs that a baby is getting enough milk, according to the Australian Breastfeeding Association:

  • At least 5 very wet disposable nappies or 6 very wet cloth nappies in 24 hours. Urine should be odourless and clear or very pale. A very young baby will usually have 3 or more soft or runny bowel movements each day for several weeks. Strong, dark urine or formed bowel motions suggest that the baby needs more breastmilk and you should seek medical advice.
  • Good skin colour and muscle tone. If you gently pinch your baby's skin, it should spring back into place.
  • Your baby is alert and reasonably contented and does not want to feed constantly. It is, however, normal for babies to have times when they feed more frequently and to wake for night feeds.
  • Some weight gain and growth in length and head circumference.

Tips for breastfeeding success

When it comes to breastfeeding, attachment is everything. You're very unlikely to experience soreness from feeding your baby often, but your nipples can become very sore if the baby is not properly attached to your breast during feeds.

Even though it may take a while to get the hang of breastfeeding, it will become easier and quicker with practice. Learn how to position and attach your baby on the breast properly; ask your midwife to help you. You can follow the helpful guide on 'How to position your baby' here.

Watch this video for more advice on good attachment.

Video provided by Raising Children Network.

Where to seek help

If you'd like to continue breastfeeding but are finding it a challenge, contact these support services for advice and help.

Call us and speak to a Maternal Child Health Nurse for personal advice and guidance.

Need further advice or guidance from our maternal child health nurses?

This information is for your general information and use only and is not intended to be used as medical advice and should not be used to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any medical condition, nor should it be used for therapeutic purposes.

The information is not a substitute for independent professional advice and should not be used as an alternative to professional health care. If you have a particular medical problem, please consult a healthcare professional.

Except as permitted under the Copyright Act 1968, this publication or any part of it may not be reproduced, altered, adapted, stored and/or distributed in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of Healthdirect Australia.