How Long Should You Breastfeed Your Child?

Recommendations, Benefits, and When to Stop

Mixed race mother nursing daughter in living room
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How long you decide to breastfeed your child is up to you. Experts have their recommendations, others have their opinions, but only you along with your doctor and your partner can make the decision about what works for your family. Some women choose to breastfeed for just a few weeks, others breastfeed for many years, and most women do something in-between. There will always be someone who thinks you breastfed for too long or too short a period.

But, there isn't a right or wrong way, and no one should judge you on the length of time you decide to breastfeed.

What Is the Recommended Duration of Breastfeeding?

Health experts around the world are pretty much in agreement when to comes to breastfeeding guidelines. Here are some of the top expert recommendations:

  • The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends breastfeeding exclusively for 6 months, then breastfeeding in addition to the start of solid foods for at least a year. After that breastfeeding can continue for as long as the mother and child wish.
  • Similarly, the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecologists (ACOG) advises breastfeeding alone for the first 6 months then continuing to breastfeed along with complementary food for the first year. After the first year, breastfeeding should continue for as long as it is mutually desired by the mother and child.
  • The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends full or exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months then the continuation of breastfeeding along with complementary foods for 2 years or longer.

    Exclusive, Complementary, Combination: Definition of Breastfeeding Terms

    Exclusive Breastfeeding: Breastfeeding exclusively is full breastfeeding. It means that a baby's only nutrition comes from nursing at the breast. An exclusively breastfed child doesn't get anything additional to eat or drink such as formula, water, fruit juice, or baby food.

    If you can and choose to do it, exclusive breastfeeding is preferred by experts as the primary source of nutrition for the first 4 to 6 months of your child's life.

    Combination Feeding: When you want to breastfeed, but you can't or decide not to do it exclusively, you can choose to combine breastfeeding with formula feeding. There are many reasons that full breastfeeding may not work for your family. If you have to return to work or school right away, you may not be available to breastfeed your child every 2 to 3 hours. Or, if you have underdeveloped breasts or you've had a previous breast surgery, it may not be possible for you to make enough breast milk to meet your growing child's needs. Combination feeding or partial breastfeeding allows you to continue to breastfeed while supplementing your baby with additional nutrition to make sure she gets everything that she needs.

    Breastfeeding and Complementary Foods: After exclusive breastfeeding for the first 4 to 6 months, experts recommend the continuation of breastfeeding together with the addition of complementary foods. Complementary foods are foods other than breast milk. They are not meant to replace breastfeeding but provide more nutrition in addition to breastfeeding.

    The addition of complementary foods begins when you introduce your baby to his first solid food between 4 and 6 months of age. Your child's doctor will advise you when and how to start adding solids. Foods such as pureed fruits and vegetables, baby cereal, and age-appropriate nutritious snacks are often tried first. Breastfeeding is still recommended and beneficial to your child at this age, but as your child gets older, breast milk alone will no longer be enough to provide him with all the nutrition that his body requires as he grows.

    How Long Do You Have to Breastfeed for It to Be Beneficial?

    Any amount of breastfeeding or breast milk that you can give to your child is beneficial.

    Even a small amount of colostrum, the first breast milk, is valuable to your child. That first breast milk is packed with more than just nutrition. It also contains antibodies and other immune properties. So, even if you only choose to breastfeed for a little while in the beginning, that early breast milk can help protect your newborn from illnesses such as diarrhea, ear infections, and respiratory infections. If you continue to breastfeed past the newborn stage, it's even more advantageous. Breastfeeding can lower your child's risk of developing asthma, allergies, diabetes, and certain types of cancer. It may also help you lose your pregnancy weight faster while decreasing your risk of ovarian and breast cancer. There is no doubt that the benefits of breastfeeding for both moms and babies are numerous. And, the longer you breastfeed, the greater and more long-lasting they will be.

    How Long Is Too Long?

    There is not a particular age before which breastfeeding must end. Depending on how you and your child feel, experts agree that you should continue to breastfeed for as long as you find that it works for you. Provided that you begin to add complementary foods to your child's diet as she grows, breastfeeding can continue for 2 years, 3 years, or even longer. Breast milk still provides older children with additional nutrition for a complete, healthy diet. It also continues to provide antibodies and immune properties that help older children fight off infection, disease, and illness. Breastfeeding will continue to be beneficial for however long you breastfeed your baby. So, ultimately it's up to you to determine how long is too long as your child grows.

    Can Breastfeeding Cause Psychological Issues in an Older Child?

    Some mothers worry that breastfeeding an older child could cause psychological damage, but there is no reason to believe that breastfeeding an older child causes any problems at all. According to the AAP, "There is no upper limit to the duration of breastfeeding and no evidence of psychological or developmental harm from breastfeeding into the third year of life or longer."

    As mentioned before, the longer you breastfeed, the greater and more long-lasting the benefits will be. Plus, long-term breastfeeding is actually associated with some positive effects. Some of the ways that mothers describe their children after breastfeeding for a longer duration of time are healthy, happy, loving, secure, and independent.

    Dealing With Other People's Opinions

    Other people have their own opinions about how long a child should breastfeed (or if children should breastfeed at all). You'll find that friends, family, and even strangers may not be shy about voicing those opinions, either. And while you can listen to their advice, you certainly don't have to take it. You and your partner have to make the best decision for your child and your family. Often, friends and family come around to the idea of an older child breastfeeding.

    Sometimes all it takes is a little information on the benefits of continuing to breastfeed or just letting them know what the doctor and health experts around the world recommend. The important thing is not to let others opinions interfere with your decisions. Don't let anyone guilt you into breastfeeding longer if you're ready to stop or make you feel like you should stop nursing if you want to continue. You'll probably end up feeling worse in the end if you do what others think you should do instead of what you truly want to do.

    Making Decisions About Weaning

    Weaning is an important part of breastfeeding. It begins when you add another form of feeding to your baby's diet. It might start with an occasional bottle at 6 weeks, or with that first spoonful of applesauce at 6 months. You can decide to wean off the breast completely or keep on breastfeeding long after your child starts solid foods.

    When you're ready to stop breastfeeding, you can even continue to give your little one breast milk. If you begin planning for the end of breastfeeding early enough, you can pump and store your breast milk in the freezer to use after you stop putting the baby to the breast. You can give your child breast milk in a bottle or a cup well after breastfeeding has stopped. Or, you can move on to an infant formula or cow's milk depending on how old your child is when you stop breastfeeding.

    A Word From Verywell

    Breastfeeding is a personal decision. You may only feel comfortable breastfeeding for a few weeks, or you may plan to breastfeed for 6 months then end up breastfeeding a toddler. And, you know what? Whatever you end up doing is OK.  When it comes to breastfeeding, there isn't a right or wrong amount of time. So, go ahead and do what's best for you and your child. Try not to worry too much and don't feel guilty if someone says you didn't breastfeed long enough or you breastfed too long. Have confidence in your choice and the knowledge that you breastfed just the right length of time for you, your child, and your unique situation.

    Sources:

    American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. ACOG Committee Opinion no. 658: Optimizing Support for Breastfeeding as Part of Obstetric Practice. February 2016.

    Eidelman, A. I., Schanler, R. J., Johnston, M., Landers, S., Noble, L., Szucs, K., & Viehmann, L. Policy Statement. Breastfeeding and the Use of Human Milk. Section on Breastfeeding. 2012. Pediatrics, 129(3), e827-e841.

    Lawrence, Ruth A., MD, Lawrence, Robert M., MD. Breastfeeding A Guide For The Medical Profession Eighth Edition. Elsevier Health Sciences. 2015.

    Riordan, J., and Wambach, K. Breastfeeding and Human Lactation Fourth Edition. Jones and Bartlett Learning. 2014.

    World Health Organization. Breastfeeding. 2017: http://www.who.int/topics/breastfeeding/en/

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