Babies were born to breastfeed. It is not just best; it is normal. Anything other than human breast milk has known and well-documented risks and harms that don’t just last while a baby is nursing but can pervade throughout a person’s life. For example, scientific research continues to show that formula-fed babies get sick more often and more severely than their breastfeeding counterparts. Babies who are sustained on formula have higher instances of asthma, ear infections, allergies, diabetes, obesity, childhood cancers, respiratory and gastrointestinal illnesses, and Multiple Sclerosis, to name a few. Mothers who don’t breastfeed their babies have higher rates of breast, ovarian, and endometrial cancers, retain their baby weight longer, have higher rates of anemia and diabetes, and see an immediate return to menses without sustaining the luxury of natural contraception through breastfeeding (LAM).
Armed with this information, moms who may not have been inclined to breastfeed may decide to try and mothers who were only going to breastfeeding for a couple months may decide to nurse longer. That is wonderful! But how long should you nurse your child? What is necessary to garner these benefits and when is breast milk no longer beneficial to your baby?
The World Health Organization states the following:
Breastfeeding is the normal way of providing young infants with the nutrients they need for healthy growth and development. Virtually all mothers can breastfeed, provided they have accurate information, and the support of their family, the health care system and society at large…Exclusive breastfeeding is recommended up to 6 months of age, with continued breastfeeding along with appropriate complementary foods up to two years of age or beyond. 1
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends, “exclusive breastfeeding for about the first six months of a baby’s life, followed by breastfeeding in combination with the introduction of complementary foods until at least 12 months of age, and continuation of breastfeeding for as long as mutually desired by mother and baby.” 2
Great Britain recommends exclusive breastfeeding, “for around the first six months of a baby’s life. After this, breastfeed alongside other foods for as long as you and your baby wish. This might be into their second year or beyond.” 3
The Public Health Association of Australia recommends breastfeeding according to WHO guidelines, as do most countries around the world.
So, how long should you breastfeed your baby?
Ideally, you would nurse exclusively for the first six months and continue alongside solids for at least the first two years of life. Then carry on as long as you and your child are happy with your breastfeeding relationship; even considering allowing your child to wean gradually on his own timing. If left to make the decision on their own (without cultural and sociological factors influencing a child) babies typically self-wean between the ages of 2 ½ – 7, with most being between ages 3-4. 4 This is not always the message women hear in the Western world though!
Breast milk is always beneficial to your baby no matter how long you nurse. Even toddlers, especially toddlers, need the immunological properties to help fight off all the germs and bacteria that is going in their mouth from toys and playing and that they are contacting daily. Their immature immune systems need mother’s milk to help them fight these bacteria! Breast milk continues to benefit your child every time she receives it, and there is no age limit for these benefits.
When and how to wean your child are personal decisions. Being informed about the benefits of breast milk, optimum feeding practices, worldwide health association recommendations for breastfeeding, and listening to you and your baby’s needs are all important pieces to consider. In the end, weaning because of pressure from family, friends or society as a whole is usually not going to bring a big fanfare for your decision, or a sense a peace and closure to you if everything had been going well but you felt societal pressure to begin the weaning process. As you are pregnant and thinking about breastfeeding, it can be a huge stress reliever and quite relaxing to follow your baby’s breastfeeding cues and make a conscience decision to find joy in this phase of your life and not rush it long. Get excellent lactation support in the beginning to help get nursing off to a great start, and then follow your heart and your baby’s needs and see where it takes you in your breastfeeding journey. You may even want to join the ranks of other moms nursing toddlers and be a part of changing our western culture’s idea of breastfeeding duration. Whatever you choose to do, arm yourself with information and make the decision that is best for you and your baby!