Objective: to examine cultural expectations and experiences of breast feeding amongst first time mothers from low-income areas, in order to improve understanding of why many cease breast feeding in the early days of their babies' lives. Design: qualitative interviews were carried out with 16 women, who expressed an intention to breast feed, at 37 weeks in their pregnancy and again at 3-9 weeks postnatally. Setting: women were interviewed in their own homes in low-income areas of North Tyneside, north-east England. Findings: decisions about breast-feeding cessation were usually made within the first few days as women negotiated the pathways of informal cultures of feeding babies and the availability and quality of formal care. A 'give it a go' breast-feeding culture is identified, where women who intended to breast feed had a strong expectation of difficulties and even failure. Expertise and confidence with bottle feeding were more widespread among family and friends. The many influences on the mothers' decision-making were interconnected and contingent upon each other: if one aspect of breast feeding 'goes wrong', other reasons were often brought into play and the underlying pessimism that was felt antenatally was borne out. Conclusions: positive experiences of formal support could make a crucial difference in the early days of breast feeding. However non-breast-feeding cultures permeated and found expression in negative discourses. Support needs to take account of the cultural contexts in which mothers make decisions and the fact that breast feeding is affected by a multitude of factors simultaneously. Access to advice at the right time is a key issue for some low-income women.