How Long To Breastfeed: What’s The Right Answer?

mother breastfeeding

Medical professionals and baby experts often say that breastfeeding is the best way to feed a baby. Many people talk about the benefits and why you should do it. However, there’s not a lot of guidance about how long to breastfeed. Because of this, it’s often a tricky issue. There are those who argue for a set time limit. Others say it’s better for you and your child to do it as long as possible. Still, others say that your child will tell you when it’s time to wean.

Figuring out how to long to breastfeed can be a challenge. However, there is an answer that works for every single mother and child. Once you hear it, it will seem obvious. But first, it may help to learn a little more about nursing, including its processes, benefits, and techniques

The Basics of Breastfeeding

Woman breastfeeding her baby while lying on her side

Breastfeeding is nature’s way of providing nutrition for a baby. Almost every mother can nurse her baby. The body knows what to do, and it does it efficiently. It knows how much milk to produce and which nutrients to include in the milk. And before a newborn baby is ready for milk, the body produces colostrum, a thicker solution with a different mix of nutrients perfect for a newborn. The body knows what a baby needs and when regardless of your choice on how long to breastfeed.

Supply and Demand

One of the most interesting things about breastfeeding is that the body knows how much milk to produce for your individual baby’s needs. According to Parents Magazine, how often your baby eats lets the body know how and when to produce milk. That is why nurses or other professionals will encourage you to nurse often. If you go too long between feedings, it may negatively affect your milk production. As your baby grows, your body adjusts. It knows that the time between feedings is longer but that your baby needs more milk at each feeding. No matter what you decide as to how long to breastfeed, your body knows what to do and will keep producing milk. It’s a really intriguing example of supply and demand.

Pumping

Many mothers can’t stay at home as long as they’d like to, which can make breastfeeding difficult. Thanks to technology, though, you have the option of pumping your breast milk for a caregiver to give, or to use later.

Pumping involves a breast pump. It may be manual or electric. Electric breast pumps are much easier and quicker to use. The machine does the work needed to express your milk. You can then store it in bags or bottles that can be warmed up and given to your baby when you’re not there. Many employers now have special areas for new mothers where they can pump their milk. They also give mothers breaks throughout the work day to do so. That can make it much easier if you want to continue breastfeeding after going back to work or if finding time to nurse is a factor in your decision on how long to breastfeed.

The Benefits of Breastfeeding

Woman breastfeeding her baby who's wearing blue shirt

There are some very good reasons why health organizations and medical professionals recommend all mothers breastfeed their babies. Besides being the best and most natural food available for a baby, mother’s milk also provides everything the baby needs. Even more interesting, according to the New York State Department of Health, breast milk changes contents to match the specific needs of the child.

Furthermore, breast milk is a convenient way to feed a child because it is always available and ready. It doesn’t need to be heated, there’s is no need for bottles, and there’s no waste.

Breastfeeding also provides benefits to you and your baby. For your baby, it provides the nutrients he or she needs to stay healthy and grow properly. It also provides protection and antibodies that can help protect your child against allergies, infections, illnesses, and certain diseases. In addition, research has shown that breastfed babies have a lower chance of obesity and higher IQs. If you nurse your baby, it may help you lose weight easier. It may also help protect you against diseases, such as type II diabetes and some cancers, such as breast and ovarian cancers.

How Long to Breastfeed

Woman sitting on grass while breastfeeding her big child

Perhaps the biggest question women have about nursing is how long to breastfeed. This question has no single answer. The reason is that it’s different for every woman and child. There are recommendations of how long to breastfeed that give a minimum amount of time, but no recommendations that give a maximum amount of time.

Recommendations for How Long to Breastfeed

Baby sleeping on her mom's chest

The World Health Organization recommends breastfeeding for up to six months without any other supplemental feeding. After that, nursing may continue with supplemental feeding of food as needed.

The recommendation from the American Academy of Pediatrics for how long to breastfeed matches that of the WHO, which is to breastfeed exclusively for the first six months and then to continue nursing with the addition of food as needed. It does specifically say that breastfeeding should continue for as long as the mother and child want to do it.

While both organizations highly recommend breastfeeding for the first year at least, keep in mind that they also agree that any amount of nursing is beneficial, so don’t worry if you cannot continue doing it for a long time. Even if you only breastfeed for the first few days, know that your child is getting the nutrient-rich colostrum, which is very beneficial to him or her. You may also supplement your breast milk with formula. For example, if you work and don’t want to pump, you can give your baby formula when you are away during the work day and nurse when you return home. Do whatever works best for you and your child. That is the most important thing.

Signs It Is Time to Stop Breastfeeding

Baby looking at her mother while being fed with bottled milk

As you consider how long to breastfeed, you may desire some type of guidelines to help you know when to stop. While this is a very personal decision, there are some things you may notice that could signal that it’s time to stop breastfeeding. You can also look to other mothers for advice on how long to breastfeed and when they knew it was the right time to stop.

Some Reasons Women Stop Early

Woman breastfeeding her baby while holding her phone

The AAP did some research into how long to breastfeed, specifically looking at the reasons why women stop nursing earlier than one year, which is the recommended length of time for optimal benefits. They found that the most common reason why many women stop nursing early is that the baby has a hard time learning to do it or doesn’t seem to be doing it well enough to get the right nutrition. Other top reasons include pain and not producing enough milk.

It’s important to note that often times these issues can be overcome through proper support. Getting help from a lactation consultant, medical professional, or other breastfeeding professional can often help you to avoid issues and help you and your baby to become more comfortable with nursing. If you struggle with breastfeeding, you should seek the help of a professional.

Signs To Watch For

Husband and wife while breastfeeding their baby

Once you have made it through the initial learning curve and gotten comfortable with nursing your child, how long to breastfeed becomes the new concern. As mentioned, this is a decision that only you and your baby can make. There are no universal rules about how long to breastfeed, but other mothers can be a great source of information on when it might be the right time to stop. Today’s Parent noted the various signs mothers have noticed that signaled to them it was time to end breastfeeding.

Resentment

Crying baby while in front of mother's breast

Some mothers in the survey came to feel that juggling work and other responsibilities along with trying to pump breast milk was too much. They began to resent the process. Understandably, many didn’t like the feeling of resenting something that is supposed to be nurturing. That signaled to them it was time to stop.

New Pregnancy

Pregnant tummy

You might have heard that you can’t get pregnant if you’re breastfeeding. It’s a myth! And some moms who become pregnant again while breastfeeding find this to be a good stopping point. Some mothers do continue breastfeeding even when getting pregnant again, but for others, pregnancy makes it too difficult to continue. Some may just feel too tired to continue or just feel it isn’t working for them.

Teething

Smiling baby showing his newly grown teeth

As your child gets older and his or her teeth begin to come in, you may sympathize with mothers who decide to stop breastfeeding at this time. For some mothers, all it takes is that first bite to signal the end to the process. It varies with the child. Some may never bite while others will take every opportunity to do so.

Child’s Decision

Baby with sparkling eyes hiding in a blanket

Finally, many mothers allow their child to decide how long to breastfeed. Some children will lose interest as they begin to eat other foods and naturally begin the process of weaning themselves. Others may just make a decision that they don’t want to do it anymore.

Guidelines For Weaning

Mommy feeding her baby

Regardless of why you decide to stop, you will need to go through the weaning process. Weaning is the process of gradually stopping breastfeeding. This process, too, is beneficial to you and your child. Your body adjusts to less milk production and eventually stops producing it, which helps prevent pain and possible infection. Your child has time to get used to substitutions for feedings, which is often needed — especially if your child uses the breast for comfort or soothing.

How Long Is Too Long for Breastfeeding

breastfeeding

When many mothers consider how long to breastfeed, the answer is often to do it until age one. From a social perspective, this is the commonly accepted time for how long to breastfeed. Feeding over the one-year mark may bring about some social consequences for mothers even though there is nothing wrong with doing it. Feeding beyond one year is considered extended breastfeeding.

Social Stigma

According to ABC News, most mothers stop breastfeeding at the age of one in the United States with only 17 percent continuing beyond that point. Often, this is due to being looked down upon or shamed by others who feel breastfeeding beyond the first year is not appropriate. While extended breastfeeding is not always socially acceptable, the AAP and other health organizations support it. These organizations feel it is up to the mother and child to decide how long to breastfeed regardless of social norms or the opinions of other people. In fact, in other parts of the world, it is common for mothers to nurse up to the age of five.

Benefits Of Extended Breastfeeding

There’s nothing wrong with extended breastfeeding despite accusations that it could mentally or physically harm a child. Actually, there is solid evidence that it is beneficial. Psychology Today remarks that studies have shown extended breastfeeding helps to create a tighter bond and deeper emotional ties between a mother and child that lasts far beyond the breastfeeding years. It also may help a child to feel more secure and stable throughout childhood and even longer.

The Mayo Clinic notes that nursing beyond one year has many health benefits for both you and your child, which continue to get better the longer you continue doing it. Your child gets an immunity boost that he or she cannot otherwise get from anywhere else. It improves your health and your child’s health long term. In addition, it can reduce your risk for some diseases more the longer you do it.

The Last Word

Woman sitting in a waiting shed while breastfeeding her baby

As you consider how long to breastfeed your child, you should focus on what is best for you. While you may look to others for guidance, it really comes down to what you and your baby want. If you feel you need to quit after only a couple months, then that is perfectly fine. If you decide to keep nursing until your child is five, that is also perfectly fine. There really is no right or wrong decision when it comes to how long to breastfeed because it is such a personal decision.

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