‘Surely you’re not still breastfeeding’: a qualitative exploration of women’s experiences of breastfeeding beyond infancy in the UK

Objectives To explore women’s experiences of breastfeeding beyond infancy (>1 year). Understanding these experiences, including the motivators, enablers and barriers faced, may help inform future strategies to support and facilitate mothers to breastfeed for an optimal duration.

Design An exploratory qualitative study using an interpretive approach. Nineteen semistructured interviews were conducted (in person, via phone or Skype), transcribed and thematically analysed using the framework method.

Setting Participants drawn from across the UK through online breastfeeding support groups.

Participants Maximum variation sample of women currently breastfeeding a child older than 1 year, or who had done so in the previous 5 years. Participants were included if over 18, able to speak English at conversational level and resident in the UK.

Results The findings offer insights into the challenges faced by women breastfeeding older children, including perceived social and cultural barriers. Three core themes were interpreted: (1) parenting philosophy; (2) breastfeeding beliefs; (3) transition from babyhood to toddlerhood. Women had not intended to breastfeed beyond infancy prior to delivery, but developed a ‘child-led’ approach to parenting and internalised strong beliefs that breastfeeding is the biological norm. Women perceived a negative shift in approval for continued breastfeeding as their child transitioned from ‘baby’ to ‘toddler’. This compelled woman to conceal breastfeeding and fostered a reluctance to seek advice from healthcare professionals. Mothers reported feeling pressured to breastfeed when their babies were young, but discouraged as children grew. They identified best with the term ‘natural-term breastfeeding’.

Conclusions This study suggests that providing antenatal education regarding biological weaning ages and promotion of guidelines for optimum breastfeeding duration may encourage more women to breastfeed for longer. Promoting the concept of natural-term breastfeeding to mothers, and healthcare professionals, employers and the public is necessary to normalise and encourage acceptance of breastfeeding beyond infancy.