Conditions that threaten women’s lives in childbirth & pregnancy


Establishing breastfeeding can be very difficult after a severe medical emergency. Women were sometimes in intensive care units (ITUs) for several days, still critically ill and separated from their newborn babies. Even when women were not in intensive care, some women we spoke to, while very keen to breastfeed, found they did not feel strong enough or were in too much pain. Several women found expressing milk stressful.

Sometimes women who were in intensive care were supported by staff and able to establish breastfeeding. A combination of breastfeeding, expressing milk and supplementing with bottle feeding made this possible. But it was often a struggle. Although she had breastfed her first child and felt confident in what she was doing, Hannah often felt powerless while she was in ITU. After the birth of her first child, Alison was supported by staff to try to breastfeed, but she found it an enormous struggle after her hysterectomy and haemorrhage (heavy uncontrolled bleeding).
Hana had severe complications after developing obstetric cholestasis (a problem with the liver that causes a persistent itch) and having an emergency caesarean to deliver her twins. She felt pressure to try and breastfeed her babies, but found it a “physical, emotional nightmare”. With the support of her midwife she felt able to start bottle feeding them.
Some women we spoke to felt very strongly about breastfeeding their newborns. For some, like Hannah, it was all the more important because they had not managed a “normal birth”. Alex was determined that she was going to breastfeed her second daughter, as it was the “only thing I could do for her” while she was in neo-natal intensive care.
Lisa was determined to try to breastfeed because after having a hysterectomy she knew it would be the only chance she would have to do it. Samantha had pre-eclampsia (high blood pressure) and tried to breastfeed her daughter. It didn’t work out which she found “upsetting, so I felt like a failure”.
Sometimes women found it difficult to talk to their midwives about whether they would breastfeed or formula feed their baby. Although Lisa had briefly started breastfeeding while in intensive care she felt the midwives in the maternity ward discouraged her from breastfeeding because she was too ill after her haemorrhage and hysterectomy. But she wanted a chance to let her milk come in - she felt “robbed” of the opportunity to breastfeed. Amy had a haemorrhage and was “really cross” when she saw the midwives bring a bottle to feed her daughter. She felt it was really important for her to be able to breastfeed her, “to form a bond”, as she felt she had “totally failed and let her down”. She was grateful for their encouragement when she did successfully breastfeed.
Women may feel concerned about breastfeeding when they are taking strong medication to recover from their medical emergency, but this need not always be an obstacle, as Clare eventually discovered.

Last reviewed April 2016.


Please use the form below to tell us what you think of the site. We’d love to hear about how we’ve helped you, how we could improve or if you have found something that’s broken on the site. We are a small team but will try to reply as quickly as possible.

Please note that we are unable to accept article submissions or offer medical advice. If you are affected by any of the issues covered on this website and need to talk to someone in confidence, please contact The Samaritans or your Doctor.

Make a Donation to

Find out more about how you can help us.

Send to a friend

Simply fill out this form and we'll send them an email