What to do if you can’t breastfeed

Key points about being unable to breastfeed

  • You may assume you’ll be able to breastfeed your newborn pēpē, even if it takes a few attempts.
  • However, the reality is that for a number of different reasons some women are unable to breastfeed.
  • This can be distressing but there are options if you find yourself in that situation.
Woman sitting on bed bottle-feeding her baby
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While breastfeeding is recommended, and any breastfeeding is better than none at all, there are a number of reasons why you may not be able to breastfeed or be finding it difficult.

For example, you may:

  • have no milk supply due to a health condition, previous breast surgery or radiation therapy
  • have a premature baby (born early) or one that can't latch on properly
  • be taking medicines that make breastfeeding risky for your baby (eg, for seizures, chemotherapy)
  • have an infection that makes breastfeeding risky for your baby (eg, HIV) – read more about HIV, pregnancy and breastfeeding
  • be using substances (eg, recreational drugs) that could affect your baby through your breast milk
  • have adopted a baby or used a surrogate. 

1. Talk to your healthcare provider or lead maternity carer (LMC) early 

It’s important to seek professional help immediately if you’re struggling to breastfeed or can’t at all. The most important thing is that your baby is putting on enough weight and thriving. You can seek expert advice from a doctor, midwife, Plunket or lactation specialist. They can give you information about what to do and the best way to feed your baby using, or supplementing with, formula or donated breast milk. 

2. Be kind to yourself 

Don’t be too hard on yourself if you can’t breastfeed. Don’t feel guilty or inadequate – lots of people are in the same position. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad mother or your child won’t flourish. The most important thing is that you and your baby are healthy, happy and thriving. 

3. Use donated milk 

Using breast milk donated by other mothers is a possibility. Many parents prefer donated breast milk over formula, particularly for the first few weeks of their baby’s life. Some hospitals and birthing centres have set up milk banks where the donors have been screened for infectious diseases and lifestyle risks (eg, smoking) and the donated milk is pooled and pasteurised (treated with heat to remove bacteria). There are also informal donor milk networks in Aotearoa New Zealand. Read more about using donated breast milk(external link). 

4. Use formula 

Formula is a safe alternative to breastmilk and all formulas have to meet food and nutrition standards. It’s important you choose one that’s right for the age of your baby. If you’re not sure which one to choose, talk to your healthcare provider, Plunket or friends who formula feed their babies. Read more about formula feeding.

5. Enjoy your bundle of joy 

It’s easy to get caught up in the difficulty (and sometimes shock) of not being able to breastfeed. But remember to focus on the positive – you have a beautiful new baby! Although breastfeeding is a great bonding time for you and your baby it’s not the only way to form that bond. You can still provide skin-to-skin and eye contact while you’re bottle feeding.

Things that can help you bond with your baby include: 

  • cuddling 
  • responding to them when they cry 
  • holding, rocking, carrying them 
  • talking and singing to them 
  • making eye contact while you talk, sing and make facial expressions. 

Being a loving parent is based on so much more than feeding. 

Mother smiling down at baby sleeping on her chest

Image credit: 123rf

Problems with breastfeeding(external link) Health New Zealand | Te Whatu Ora
Donated breast milk(external link) Health New Zealand | Te Whatu Ora


What to do if you can't breastfeed(external link) Plunket, NZ 
Donated breast milk(external link) Health New Zealand | Te Whatu Ora 
Bonding and attachment – newborns(external link) Raising Children, Australia
Why some people shouldn't or can't breastfeed(external link) Very Well Family, US, 2021

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