OBJECTIVE: To explore factors that interact and shape the meaning and experience of mothers of HIV-exposed children in relation to replacing breastfeeding by infant formula. METHOD: A qualitative study was carried out with 23 mothers living with HIV, whose children were up to 18 months of age and under follow-up in a specialized care service. Symbolic Interactionism, semi-structured interviews and content analysis were adopted as theoretical framework. RESULTS: The social symbols of breastfeeding, the (un)availability of the milk formula and the (lack of)support of health professionals influenced the mothers' experience with formula feeding. Social, cultural and economic constraints have proved capable of undermining the conditions necessary for the replacement of breastfeeding. FINAL CONSIDERATIONS: The availability of infant formula, access to lactation inhibitor and quality of health services still represent challenges to eradicate new HIV infections in children.
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