Exclusively breastfed infants in developing countries are at lower risk of HIV transmission than mixed-fed infants. Ethno-graphic research was conducted in eleven low-resource settings across South Africa, Namibia and Swaziland to understand how the perceptions and experiences of counselling health workers, pregnant women and recent mothers could be used to improve infant feeding counselling. Despite prevention of mother-to-child transmission (PMTCT) programmes, very early mixed-feeding remains the norm; traditional conceptualisations of 'water as life' and 'milk as a fluid' are holding up against current PMTCT education, with milk considered liquid 'drink' rather than 'real food'. This aggravates an 'insufficient milk syndrome' where disempowered mothers perceive their breastmilk, and themselves, as deficient - 'not good enough'. Infant feeding is embedded within traditional relationships of intimacy; both relatives and breadwinner have influence and even authority over options and modes of infant feeding. In patriarchal and violent societies, traditional power differentials prohibit easy or complete HIV disclosure or condom negotiation; HIV status remains hidden from most partners and relatives. This context of secrecy means that the traditional advice and authority, which the mothers feel they dare not disregard, is often blind to the mother and her infant's HIV status and survival needs.