Exclusive breastfeeding (EBF) from 0 to 6 mo of age is recommended by the World Health Organization as the optimal feeding method for infants, including infants of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)-infected women from developing countries who choose to breastfeed. EBF may be associated with less risk of postnatal HIV transmission than mixed feeding, but is still uncommonly practised for reasons that are poorly understood. This study aimed to assess EBF rates and the impediments to EBF in a South African rural area of high HIV prevalence where most mothers are unaware of their status. In a longitudinal study, 130 women attending 3 clinics, chosen for their disparate socioeconomic characteristics, were interviewed at weekly postnatal intervals. Follow-up to 16wk was completed on 119 infants. In an additional cross-sectional survey mothers of 445 infants, aged 0–12 mo, attending immunization clinics were interviewed. In the longitudinal study 46% of infants received non-breast-milk fluids or feeds within 48 h of birth; only 10% were exclusively breastfed for 6 wk and 6% for 16wk. Supplements, most commonly formula milk, were introduced for perceived milk insufficiency. Feeding choices were mainly self-determined (43% of women), but health staff (22%) and grandmothers (16%) were cited as sources of advice. In the cross-sectional survey caregivers reported that 47% of infants aged 2 wk, 40% aged 6 wk and 33% aged 12 wk had been exclusively breastfed since birth.
Conclusion: EBF is uncommon in this area in spite of a baby-friendly hospital initiative in the district. Strategies to promote exclusive breastfeeding in developing countries where HIV and infant feeding policies are being formulated must strongly address local perceptions on the need for supplements and sources of feeding advice.