Abstract Objective To describe the breast feeding experiences of mothers in New Zealand. Design Descriptive, qualitative study. After a previous quantitative analysis of a questionnaire, the open-ended responses by the women were examined using a thematic analysis approach. Setting Hawke's Bay, New Zealand. Participants 153 primiparous and multiparous breast feeding women aged between 20 and 49 years, who had had a caesarean section or vaginal birth between 4 months and 3 years previously. Findings Themes identified during the data analysis are as follows: persistence, determination, confidence and satisfaction; pain and limitation of mothering activities; conflicting advice and professionalism; and others’ expectations. Conclusions Breast feeding experience could be detrimentally affected by physical factors, inconsistent health-professional support and others’ expectations. Negative influences, however, were likely to be overcome by persistence, determination, confidence and satisfaction. Implications for practice Implications for midwifery practice from the study iterate the importance of consistency of advice and skills of health professionals, of listening and understanding women's responses to early breast feeding assistance and giving continuous encouragement and support throughout their breast feeding experience. To meet these recommendations, breast feeding education for health professionals needs to include technical expertise and communication skills. Recommendations for further research from this study include investigations into why women commit to breast feeding and an exploration of women's perceptions of midwives’ breast feeding support.