Breast ironing (also called breast flattening) is when young girls' breasts are damaged over time to flatten them and delay their development. Sometimes, an elastic belt, or binder, is used to stop them from growing.

Breast ironing usually starts with the first signs of puberty and is most often done by female relatives. In most cases, the abuser incorrectly thinks they're behaving in the best interests of the child. They believe flattening the breasts will make the child less 'womanly'. They hope this will protect the girl from harassment, rape, abduction and early forced marriage, and help them stay in education. 

Breast ironing can cause serious physical issues such as:

  • abscesses (a painful collection of pus that develops under the skin)
  • cysts (fluid-filled lumps under the skin that can develop into abscesses)
  • itching
  • tissue damage
  • infection
  • discharge of milk
  • breasts becoming significantly different shapes or sizes
  • severe fever
  • the complete disappearance of one or both breasts

Although there's no specific law within the UK around breast ironing, it's a form of child abuse.

Find out what the signs of this abuse are, what you can do if you’re concerned about someone and how to get help if you’ve been affected.

Signs and symptoms of breast ironing

There are many signs that breast ironing could be happening to a girl. These include:

  • avoiding medical examinations
  • not wanting to get undressed in front of anyone
  • difficulty lifting their arms as the breast area will be tender to move and touch
  • walking or sitting hunched over
  • some girls may ask for help, but may not say exactly what the problem is because they're embarrassed or scared
  • unusual behaviour after time away from school or college including depression, anxiety, aggression and withdrawal
  • a girl is withdrawn from PE and/or sex and relationship education classes

What to do if you're concerned about someone

If you suspect someone is in immediate danger, call 999 now. If you have a hearing or speech impairment, use our textphone service 18000 or text us on 999 if you’ve pre-registered with the emergencySMS service.

If it isn’t an emergency, please get in touch in any of these other ways:

  • call our non-emergency, 24/7 number: 101. If you have a hearing or speech impairment, use our textphone service on 18001 101
  • visit a police station to speak to an officer in person
  • contact the NSPCC to speak to a professional practitioner
  • contact the children's social care team at your local council
  • contact Crimestoppers confidentially and anonymously

If you’re a child, you could also speak to someone you trust, like a friend, a teacher or another adult.

If you’re a professional working with children, remember you have a responsibility to refer your concerns to Children’s Social Care through your local council.

Support organisations

The National FGM Centre

A partnership between Barnardo’s and the Local Government Association (LGA) to improve FGM services.

The Schools Charter

Safeguarding children from sexual violence, CSE and harmful practices.

Came Women and Girls Development Organisation (CAWOGIDO)

A charity raising awareness and information on breast ironing. 

28 Too Many

An international charity working to end FGM through research and local initiatives.

Childline

A free, private and confidential service where you can talk about anything.