Study of the Day: Breastfeeding for 6 Months Is an Unrealistic Goal

In interviews, parents said they felt pressured to breastfeed and thought the standard set by the World Health Organization was too idealistic.

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PROBLEM: Breastfeeding exclusively for half a year confers substantial health benefits for mothers and babies. But is this recommendation from the World Health Organization realistic?

METHODOLOGY: Researchers led by the University of Aberdeen's Pat Hoddinott conducted 220 face-to-face interviews with 36 women, all but one of whom planned to breastfeed their babies, plus 26 partners, eight mothers, one sister, and two health care professionals. They carried out the discussions at roughly four-week intervals to find out the participants' views on infant feeding from the last month of pregnancy until six months after birth, and what impact feeding practice had on the wider family.

RESULTS: The reality the respondents experienced didn't match with the represented ideal of six months of exclusive breastfeeding with timely and appropriate support from family members and fully trained health care professionals. Some parents said they felt "pressured" to breastfeed, and found the all-or-nothing approach to breastfeeding unhelpful. One mother said: "I think a reality check actually would be good, because they [health care professionals] make it sound so easy." Another said that breastfeeding was promoted "as a lovely bonding experience," and this made her feel guilty because that's not what she had.

CONCLUSION: The advice to breastfeed exclusively for six months may be too idealistic. The authors say more incremental and achievable goals should be set instead, particularly in countries like the U.S. and the U.K. that have struggled to meet targets to boost breastfeeding rates.

IMPLICATION: Health care professionals should acknowledge that there are many ways to feed a baby safely and replace the checklist method to breastfeeding with a family-centered narrative approach.

SOURCE: The full study, "A Serial Qualitative Interview Study of Infant Feeding Experiences: Idealism Meets Realism," (PDF) is published in the journal BMJ Open.

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Hans Villarica writes for and produces The Atlantic's Health channel. His work has appeared in TIME, People Asia, and Fast Company.

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