Breastfeeding Challenges: How to Find Support for Common Problems

NICHD Offers Information to Address Common Barriers at Home and at Work

Mother breastfeeding child

For the first 6 months after a baby’s birth, breastmilk can provide all of the nutrition and sustenance a newborn needs. Nearly four of every five infants in the United States are fed this way—at least at the start.

But by 6 months old, fewer than half of babies are still breastfeeding. NIH, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and other government agencies support nationwide efforts to increase breastfeeding rates, such as the Healthy People 2020 initiative.

Does it ever feel like breastfeeding is just too hard or not worth it? Sometimes providers advise against breastfeeding for medical reasons. But often, healthy breastfeeding moms find themselves facing difficulties that prove insurmountable. Common challenges include the following:

  • Lack of experience or information
  • Pain
  • Too little or too much milk
  • Depression or anxiety
  • Difficulty accommodating breastfeeding or pumping at the workplace

Support from a broad network of people—including providers, employers, partners, and family—can help in overcoming these challenges.

“What’s the best thing to do? Sometimes the solution isn’t obvious,” said Dr. Rosalind B. King, who oversees part of NICHD’s breastfeeding research portfolio. “But there’s a wealth of information and support available—from a partner or family member, groups of moms who can offer advice, online resources, and more—to help support breastfeeding and help women navigate challenges at work or home.”

Through research and outreach, NICHD helps increase awareness about the benefits of breastfeeding and shed light on the barriers.

What are the benefits of breastfeeding?

If there is no medical reason to recommend against it, breastfeeding can be beneficial to baby’s health and crucial for mother-infant bonding. Breastfeeding has many health benefits, including bonding mother and baby and providing nutritionally balanced meals for baby, as well as some protection against common childhood infections.

Evidence also shows that babies who are breastfed or fed with breastmilk for the first 6 months of life are at a lower risk of SIDS. One reason for this may be that breastmilk-fed infants wake up more easily than formula-fed infants.

Breastfeeding is also economical. According to one study, a mother who breastfeeds can save $1,500 on formula in her baby’s first year. A healthier baby also can mean lower medical costs and less time off work for parents. For these and other reasons, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months.

What support is available for breastfeeding moms?

In 2011, the Surgeon General issued A Call to Action To Support Breastfeeding, an effort that relied on NICHD research as part of its evidence.

Researchers found that basic information and input from moms, health care providers, partners, and family members were key components of support for breastfeeding mothers.

Health care providers are in a strong position to provide information and answer questions. The Office of Women’s Health (OWH) maintains information about preparing for breastfeeding, including how to work with your doctor to support your breastfeeding goals.

Family encouragement is important too. Research shows women with supportive partners are more likely to breastfeed. Fathers Supporting Breastfeeding is one initiative supported by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Women also can tap other sources of support, including other moms who can offer tips and advice. In addition, these resources are available:

  • La Leche League and other types of support groups
  • The Office of Women’s Health offers sources of support and:
    • Sponsors the National Breastfeeding Helpline at 800-994-9662 where trained peer counselors help answer common questions in English or Spanish
    • Provides information on building a support network: It’s Only Natural initiative

How is breastfeeding tied to mothers’ mental health?

Some women describe the emotional bond that develops while breastfeeding to be one of the most rewarding benefits.

Compared with mothers who feed their babies formula, breastfeeding mothers reported less anxiety and more calm. Studies (PDF - 118 KB) also show that women who breastfeed have a reduced response to stress. These findings might be tied to the hormone oxytocin, which is released during breastfeeding.

Though the nature of the connection is unclear, research also shows that emotional health challenges--specifically depression--and breastfeeding may be linked. For example, one study showed that women who experienced severe pain while breastfeeding in the first 2 weeks after giving birth were more likely to show symptoms of depression when the child was 2 months old.

Depression and anxiety may get in the way of doing everyday activities, like taking care of yourself and your baby. If you have feelings of intense anxiety that hit with no warning, feel foggy, have difficulty completing tasks, or have little interest in things you once enjoyed, you’re not alone. Learn more about the signs of depression and anxiety after birth and find sources of help in the action plan from NICHD’s Moms’ Mental Health Matters initiative.

What can new moms expect when they go back to work?

Returning to work also can pose a major challenge to breastfeeding. Research indicates that moms who go back to work within 3 months of their child’s birth are less likely to breastfeed. Breastfeeding mothers who return to work in this time frame are estimated to shorten the time they breastfeed by up to 5 weeks.

Federal law requires businesses to set aside a break time for nursing mothers to pump at their workplace. Mothers also can consult state and federal laws for more specific provisions and requirements where they work.

If you’re a new mother planning to return to work, discuss your plan with your employer. OWH offers tips for planning ahead while on maternity leave.

More Information

Breastfeeding can help optimize your health and your baby’s, too. Follow the links below for more information on breastfeeding and support for breastfeeding mothers.

Originally Posted: June 27, 2016


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