Abstract Aims and objectives Breast-feeding rates are low in Northern Ireland (NI) compared with other regions of Europe. The aim of this study has therefore been to define and explore factors determining infant feeding decisions with a view to the planning of future research and intervention needs. Method Participants were approached at convenience from the throughput of women attending a large teaching hospital antenatal clinic to take part in focus group discussion. Results Dominant themes indicated that the main barriers to breast-feeding are restricted freedom and independence associated with family issues, return to work, societal embarrassment and perceived social isolation. The dialogue suggested that breast-feeding leads to inability to carry out everyday activities and social exclusion. Conclusions Incompatible social norms make it difficult for mothers to breast-feed successfully. This implies that future promotional efforts should take a societal approach.