“How long should I breastfeed?” is a question that most people have when they are considering becoming parents or when they have a new baby. Like most things, there is not one right answer for everyone. If I had to answer the question, I’d probably say, “As long as it’s working for you.”
How Long it’s Recommended to Breastfeed
The most recent 2022 update in recommendations by the American Academy of Pediatrics includes an extension to the length of time they say breastfeeding continues to be beneficial and should be supported. The actual statement reads:
- Exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months. There is no need to introduce infant formula or other sources of nutrition for most infants. Beyond 6 months, breastfeeding should be maintained along with nutritious complementary foods.
- AAP recommends that birth hospitals or centers implement maternity care practices that improve breastfeeding initiation, duration, and exclusivity.
- There are continued benefits from breastfeeding beyond 1 year and up to 2 years, especially for the mother. Long-term breastfeeding is associated with protection against diabetes, high blood pressure, and cancers of the breast and ovaries.
- Mothers who choose to breastfeed beyond the first year need support from their medical care providers, as well as protections against workplace barriers.
- Policies that protect breastfeeding, including universal paid maternity leave; the right of a woman to breastfeed in public; insurance coverage for lactation support and breast pumps; on-site child care; universal workplace break time with a clean, private location for expressing milk; the right to feed expressed milk; and the right to breastfeed in child care centers and lactation rooms in schools are all essential to supporting families in sustaining breastfeeding.
The World Health Organization and UNICEF, along with other organizations have been recommending this for many years already. Currently:
- WHO and UNICEF recommend that children initiate breastfeeding within the first hour of birth and be exclusively breastfed for the first 6 months of life – meaning no other foods or liquids are provided, including water.
- Infants should be breastfed on demand – that is as often as the child wants, day and night. No bottles, teats, or pacifiers should be used.
- From the age of 6 months, children should begin eating safe and adequate complementary foods while continuing to breastfeed for up to 2 years and beyond.
These statements come from organizations that exist to keep up with the latest evidence and make recommendations for us and for our care providers. Of course, these recommendations can’t be applied to everyone in all situations, but they are guidelines and ideals. So, as long as you are able to, and the benefits outweigh the disadvantages for you and your family, the ultimate goal is about TWO YEARS.
My Personal Breastfeeding Journey
That is going to sound like a long time to people who have never breastfed before, or who are in the middle of learning to breastfeed a newborn.
When we’re starting out, it is often challenging and definitely very time-consuming. The good news is that it gets significantly easier as time goes on. The newborns need our milk a lot more often than the six-month-old baby. And the two-year-old needs less than the one-year-old baby does. Those older babies will be eating a variety of foods by then, and breast milk usually becomes more of a supplement. It’s comforting, it’s nutritious, and it’s usually pretty easy. It’s very different from breastfeeding a newborn.
Most people don’t need to pump or breastfeed around the clock to keep up the milk supply anymore, and our bodies can continue to provide milk even with a lot of inconsistency and breast neglect. For most people who are breastfeeding older babies, the milk is there and useful for those moments when we are with our babies and we’d like to give them some. It is no longer necessary to constantly monitor and safeguard our supply, and they can eat other things most of the time.
I breastfed each of my babies for a little over two years. By the time they were two years old, they only breastfed a little when they woke up in the morning, a little before going to bed at night, and sometimes after a nap. It might be just a 5-10 minute snack each time. In between those snacks, I did not have to pump or worry about whether the milk would still be there. It was clear that the milk supply was less, but steady…..just what we needed at that point.
I only stopped with the first because I was pregnant with the second and it started to dry up and become uncomfortable. It was the right time, and it was easy to stop. My daughter had an easy time with the transition because it was a minor part of her daily intake. One day I asked her if she would like to have a juice box instead of “boobie milk” and she was thrilled! That was it. My breasts needed no time or special treatment to adjust. It was there, and then at some point, it wasn’t. It was hard to tell when it was gone completely because it was such a gradual loss of supply over the two years of our breastfeeding journey. There was no engorgement or pain or major change in size or shape. They just went back to what they were before! Many people who are able to wean in such a gradual way have a similar experience.
I decided to stop breastfeeding my son because he was large and loud and had a hard time sitting still as a two-year-old. I didn’t like grabbing and demands for milk at any time or place, so I had dedicated times and places for breastfeeding with my toddlers, which they understood. As my son got older and more distracted during our nursing times, I got annoyed and started to resent it, so I stopped. It felt like the right time for me. I had had enough. He didn’t seem to mind much at first, but then I did have to do some comforting before he got past it completely and stopped asking for it. That part was a little bit difficult with my son, but the transition for my body was just as easy as it was the first time.
You may decide that you need to stop breastfeeding because of work or travel or a medical condition or life stresses that lower your milk supply. Some people just really don’t like it and make a goal to stop when it stops being beneficial. There are an infinite number of reasons that people stop breastfeeding, but it should never be because of outside pressures to stop at an arbitrary point if things are working well for you. A lot of people truly enjoy breastfeeding, and it can be sad when it’s time to stop. Some people enjoy it, but get pressure from friends or family to stop because the baby is getting “too old”. Sometimes that’s at six months, or one year, or two years. If that’s the case for you, you now know that you have the support of the AAP, WHO, UNICEF, the CDC, AAFP, NHS, and many other institutions. It’s more than reasonable to continue breastfeeding if it’s working for you.
When Your Baby Refuses the Breast
For some people, the decision to stop is made by the baby! Babies sometimes just start refusing the breast. When those babies are already eating solid foods, that might not be a difficult transition. It might even be a relief, especially if you were thinking of weaning and wondering how to go about it! They might just lose interest or have a preference for other forms of nutrition. It might happen if the baby is breastfeeding AND bottle feeding and they decide that the bottle is easier. They sometimes go on a nipple strike because it’s much easier to get milk out of a bottle than a breast.
If your plan was to breastfeed longer it can feel disappointing. Some people experience grief when this happens, and that is totally normal and understandable too. If this happens when a baby is still very young, it can be extremely difficult. In that case, you may have to decide whether to pump and bottle feed or give formula. Again, it does matter that whatever you choose works for you.
Remember that even though the benefits of breastfeeding continue beyond that first year, any amount of breastfeeding is beneficial, and you have done a great thing by breastfeeding at all.
Breastfeeding needs change with time. A lactation consultant can help you navigate feeding changes as your baby grows. Click here to schedule an appointment with an IBCLC.