Born to breastfeed – but why is it still so painful?

Posted on January 23, 2014

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Fewer than three per cent of infants reach the optimal breastfeeding goal of two years

Fewer than three per cent of infants reach the optimal breastfeeding goal of two years.

There has been little progress for women initiating breast-feeding during the past six decades, a new study by La Trobe University has found.

Researchers Miranda Buck and Lisa Amir say their results reveal ‘a great need to help Australia’s breastfeeding women – and in doing so, invest in the health of the next generation’.

More research and policy implementation is needed to achieve that goal, they add.

Ms Buck is a doctoral researcher, registered neonatal nurse and lactation consultant and Dr Amir an Associate Professor in La Trobe’s Judith Lumley Centre for mothers and infants’ health.

They say studies of breastfeeding problems in new mothers in America in the 1950s found 80 per cent of women experienced sore nipples, ‘which doesn’t seem surprising when it was common practice to rub alcohol on nipples’.

Writing about their research on The Age Daily Life website  this year the researchers say:

‘Sixty years later we are less liberal with alcohol (but) in a brand new “Baby-friendly” public hospital and equally well-equipped private hospital in Melbourne, our study found’ … wait for it! … ‘almost 80 per cent of first time mothers experienced nipple pain and 58 per cent nipple damage.’

Reduced milk production

Dr Amir, left, and Ms Buck with new parents Rosie and Ron and their son Otis Mullan at the Women's Hospital. Image: Courtesy The Women's

Dr Amir, left, and Ms Buck with new parents Rosie and Ron and their son Otis Mullan at the Women’s Hospital. Image: Courtesy The Women’s

‘Previous studies have found that although the most common reason given by women for stopping breastfeeding before they had planned was “not enough milk”, nipple pain was frequently a contributing factor.

‘It is also a leading cause of formula supplementation, which in turn can lead to reduced milk production.

‘Some women refuse to even begin to breastfeed because of the fear and expectation of pain.’

The researchers tracked 360 first-time mothers from the Royal Women’s Hospital and Frances Perry House for eight weeks after birth.

All were well-placed to achieve optimal breastfeeding – educated, motivated, and supported to breastfeed with many recruited from hospital breastfeeding classes. All intended to breastfeed for at least eight weeks; most for six months or a year.

Significant challenges

Yet the challenges faced by these women were significant.Of the nearly 80 per cent who experienced nipple pain in the first week after birth, 20 per cent still experienced significant pain after eight weeks – and 10 per cent still had damaged nipples.

The researchers say Australian women, generally, want to breastfeed their babies: 96 per cent of new mothers begin breastfeeding but only 30 per cent of infants are breastfed for a full year.

‘Fewer than three per cent of infants reach the optimal breastfeeding goal of two years, which would ensure the strongest start for babies and the least risk for mothers’ long-term health.’

‘What is clear from the results of our study,’ the researchers conclude, ‘is that even in a maternity system fully geared towards support breastfeeding, many women continue to have an extraordinarily difficult time – despite being highly motivated to do so.’

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