How long to continue breastfeeding for is a personal decision for each family to make. The World Health Organization recommends exclusive breastfeeding (i.e. no other fluids or solids) for six months and then continued breastfeeding combined with solid foods for 2 years or as long as mother and baby desire. Read here about what breastfeeding provides at the different ages and stages of your baby's life. Even if breastfeeding has not worked out as you had planned, you can be reassured that even a few days of breastmilk has been important for your baby.
IF YOU BREASTFEED YOUR BABY FOR JUST A FEW DAYS, he will have received your colostrum, or early milk. By providing anti-infective factors (eg antibodies) and the food his brand-new body expects, breastfeeding gives your baby his first — and easiest — ‘immunisation’ and helps get his digestive system working smoothly. Breastfeeding is how your baby expects to start and he is born with the instincts to help guide this process. It also helps your own body recover from the birth. Given how little it takes to offer it, and how very much your baby stands to gain, it makes good sense to breastfeed for at least a day or two, even if you plan to bottle-feed after that.
IF YOU BREASTFEED YOUR BABY FOR 4–6 WEEKS, you will have eased him through the most critical part of his infancy. Newborns who are not breastfed are much more likely to get sick or be hospitalised, and have an increased risk of SIDS than breastfed babies. After 4–6 weeks, you'll probably have worked through any early breastfeeding concerns, too. Make a serious goal of breastfeeding for a month, call the Breastfeeding Helpline or an international board certified lactation consultant (IBCLC) if you have any questions and you'll be in a better position to decide whether continued breastfeeding is for you.
IF YOU BREASTFEED YOUR BABY FOR 3–4 MONTHS, her digestive system will have matured a great deal, and she will be much better able to tolerate the foreign substances in formula. Giving nothing but your breastmilk for the first 6 months helps to protect against infections (eg ear, respiratory and gastrointestinal).
IF YOU BREASTFEED YOUR BABY FOR 6 MONTHS without adding any other food or drink, you will help ensure good health throughout your baby's first year of life, reduce your little one's risk of infection, and reduce your own risk of breast cancer. Exclusive, frequent breastfeeding during the first 6 months, if your periods have not returned, provides 98% effective contraception. The National Health and Medical Research Council and the World Health Organization recommend waiting until about 6 months to start solids.
IF YOU BREASTFEED YOUR BABY FOR 9 MONTHS, you will have nourished him through the period of his fastest and most important brain and body development on the food that was designed for him — your milk. Weaning may be fairly easy at this age ... but then, so is breastfeeding! If you want to avoid weaning this early, be sure that, from the start, you breastfeed willingly to provide comfort, not just to provide food.
IF YOU BREASTFEED YOUR BABY FOR ONE YEAR, you can avoid the expense of formula. Her one-year-old body can probably handle most of the family foods your family enjoys. Many of the health benefits this year of breastfeeding has given your child will last her whole life. She will be less likely to need orthodontic treatment and have a reduced risk of some childhood cancers such as leukaemia. The National Health and Medical Research Council recommends breastfeeding for a year, or for as long as mother and baby desire, because it helps ensure normal nutrition and health for your baby.
IF YOU BREASTFED YOUR BABY FOR 18 MONTHS, you will have continued to provide nutrition, comfort, and illness protection for your baby, at a time when illness is common in weaned babies. Your baby is probably well established on family foods, too. He has had time to form a solid bond with you — a healthy starting point for his growing independence. He is now old enough that you and he can work together on the weaning process, at a pace that he can handle.
IF YOUR CHILD WEANS WHEN SHE IS READY, you can feel confident that you have met your baby's physical and emotional needs in a very normal, healthy way. In cultures where there is no pressure to wean, children tend to breastfeed for at least 2 years. The World Health Organization and UNICEF strongly encourage breastfeeding through toddlerhood: ‘Breastmilk is an important source of energy and protein, and helps to protect against disease during the child's second year of life.’ Our biology seems geared to a weaning age of between 2 and a half and 7 years. It makes sense to build our children's bones from the milk that was designed for them. Your milk provides nutrients, anti-infective factors and other protective substances as long as your child continues breastfeeding. Mothers who breastfeed long- term have a still lower risk of developing breast cancer. Children who were breastfed long-term tend to be very secure and are less likely to suck their thumbs or carry a blanket. Breastfeeding eases both of you through the tears, tantrums and tumbles that come with early childhood. It helps ensure that any illnesses are milder and easier to deal with. It's an all-purpose mothering tool you won't want to be without! Don't worry that your child will breastfeed forever. All children stop on their own, no matter what you do, and there are more breastfeeding youngsters around than you might guess.
WHETHER YOU BREASTFEED FOR A DAY OR FOR SEVERAL YEARS, the decision to breastfeed your child is one you will never regret. And whenever weaning takes place, remember that it is a big step for both of you.
Breastfeeding: an introduction booklet
Breastfeeding: an Introduction provides a basic outline of the key aspects of breastfeeding.
©2008 Diane Wiessinger, MS, IBCLC136 Ellis Hollow Creek RoadIthaca,NY14850
Revised and modified with permission October 2018