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When breastfeeding isn't working

While some women are able to breastfeed easily right from the start, others find themselves faced with unpleasant surprises. In some situations it may even be necessary to advise against breastfeeding altogether.

At the beginning, especially, breastfeeding requires a lot of practice and patience until mother and child are used to each other, and it is generally possible to get over whatever initial problems there may be. However, in some circumstances it becomes necessary to put breastfeeding on hold for a certain period, especially when the milk or the feeding itself is harming the mother or the baby.

When mothers are unable to breastfeed
While there are few medical reasons that speak against breastfeeding, it may be necessary to refrain from it or get an expert's advice if the following illnesses are a factor:

  • HIV infection
  • Alcoholism, drug use, excessive smoking
  • Skin infection from a herpes virus: The baby should not have any contact with a herpes lesion. Breastfeeding can be resumed as soon as the outbreak has healed.
  • When taking certain medications: Mothers generally don't need to wean the child if they can resume breastfeeding after the treatment; however, the baby may refuse the breast.
  • Breast inflammation (mastitis): Pumping milk as a way of maintaining milk production makes sense – if the pain permits. Breastfeeding can be resumed once the infection has ended or the antibiotics cycle has been completed, but it doesn't always work.

Anatomical reasons for not breastfeeding are rare: inverted or flat nipples can be prepared already during pregnancy by using nipple shapers, and sore nipples can be protected by nipple shields, for example. On the other hand, breastfeeding can be difficult or even impossible for women who had breast surgery, especially in the case of breast reduction.

When breastfeeding is impossible
Medical reasons for taking a baby off breast milk altogether are extremely rare and include a lactose intolerance, or if the baby has been diagnosed with some other intolerance.

Some babies simply need time get used to the breast and to sucking. This is often the case when they are born prematurely or separated from their mother right after birth. The best solution for babies who are weak in sucking or refuse the breast is to give them breast milk from the bottle.

Substitutes for breast milk
When breastfeeding doesn't work despite an intense, persistent and patient effort, it makes sense to consider a breast milk substitute. Mothers often have a bad conscience in doing so, but this is unjustified. Even though breast milk is the best nutrition for the baby, there are many types of powder available that have virtually all the components found in breast milk. Some substances, such as the mother's antibodies, cannot be replicated, but the baby will nevertheless get all the nutrients it needs through the infant formula. And mothers as well as fathers can still build a close emotional bond with the baby by creating a warm atmosphere and making physical contact when feeding with the bottle.

Any other questions?
The doctors and medical specialists at sante24 are available around the clock to provide free information and expert advice to SWICA customers and to answer questions about breastfeeding and being a new mother. Tel. +41 (0)44 404 86 86.

SWICA supports the Breastfeeding Campaign 2017, which runs in German-speaking Switzerland from May until July. For more information, visit: