BACKGROUND: Breastfeeding behaviour is multifactorial, and a wide range of socio-cultural and physiological variables impact on a woman's decision and ability to breastfeed successfully. An association has been reported between maternal obesity and low breastfeeding rates. This is of public health concern because obesity is rising in women of reproductive age and the apparent association with increased artificial feeding will lead to a greater risk of obesity in children. The aim of this paper is to examine the relationship between maternal overweight and obesity and breastfeeding intention and initiation and duration. METHODS: A systematic review was conducted in January and February 2007, using the following databases: Medline, CINAHL and the Australian Breastfeeding Association's Lactation Resource Centre. Studies which have examined maternal obesity and infant feeding intention, initiation, duration and delayed onset of lactation were tabulated and summarised. RESULTS: Studies have found that obese women plan to breastfeed for a shorter period than normal weight women and are less likely to initiate breastfeeding. Of the four studies that examined onset of lactation, three reported a significant relationship between obesity and delayed lactogenesis. Fifteen studies, conducted in the USA, Australia, Denmark, Kuwait and Russia, have examined maternal obesity and duration of breastfeeding. The majority of large studies found that obese women breastfed for a shorter duration than normal weight women, even after adjusting for possible confounding factors. CONCLUSION: There is evidence from epidemiological studies that overweight and obese women are less likely to breastfeed than normal weight women. The reasons may be biological or they may be psychological, behavioral and/or cultural. We urgently need qualitative studies from women's perspective to help us understand women in this situation and their infant feeding decisions and behaviour.