How Long Should You Breastfeed: Nutritional Benefits and Timelines

It’s an incredibly special bond between mother and child, and it’s also a topic that raises many differing opinions. This week, we’re discussing breastfeeding.

We’ll highlight the fundamental facts of breastfeeding and sort through the various opinions out there to help you make the most informed decision as you travel along this personal journey.

Fundamental Benefits of Breastfeeding

Breastfeeding is a unique experience that has been shared by mothers and their children across cultures, countries, and centuries. It should come as little surprise then to find out that breast milk is the best source of nutrients you can provide an infant.

Breast milk is also special because its composition changes as your baby develops, providing your child the nutrients they need when they need it most.

Let’s examine some of the benefits of breastfeeding for both infants and mothers, as stated by the CDC:

Infants who are breastfed have a lower risk of ear infections, asthma, diabetes, gastrointestinal infection, eczema, inflammatory bowel disease, necrotizing enterocolitis, obesity, respiratory infections, and sudden infant death syndrome.

Mothers who have breastfed their children are at a lower risk for breast and ovarian cancers, diabetes, and high blood pressure.

Time Spent at the Breast

Infants will breastfeed 8 – 12 times in 24 hours, though these feedings won’t often occur on a set schedule. The length of each feeding time also tends to vary. Feeding times typically vary from 10 minutes to 45 minutes.

Ending a Feeding Session

Your baby will usually give you a signal when they are ready to switch breasts. Most sources recommend allowing your baby to make the decision rather than changing breasts too soon.

This is because the milk towards the end of a feeding session will often have a higher fat content. Removing your baby too soon could affect their ability to receive those extra nutrients.

When to Wean

Now that we’ve reviewed some benefits of breastfeeding, let’s discuss what the medical community says about weaning.

Exclusive Breastfeeding

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), children should be exclusively fed with breast milk until around six months of age.

“Exclusive” in this context means that the child is only ingesting breast milk, no supplemental food or water. While exclusive feedings should continue for six months, this doesn’t mean you should stop breastfeeding at six months.

Balancing Breastfeeding and Introducing New Foods

The CDC also recommends that mothers continue to breastfeed for at least the first year. You’ll be adding in complementary foods as you wean your child.

So, by the time your child is a year old, breast milk will account for less of their diet depending on how far you’ve gotten into weaning.

Some children may only be breastfeeding a couple of times a day by age one, while others will still be relying on breast milk for most of their nutrients.

Sometimes Breastfeeding Isn’t Possible

There are certainly instances in which breastfeeding isn’t possible, or rare cases where breastfeeding isn’t recommended (ex. If the mother has an infection such as tuberculosis).

Consult with your primary physician or pediatrician if you think you have a special consideration that would preclude breastfeeding.

The Weaning Process

Weaning technically begins once you start feeding your child anything other than breast milk. As mentioned, this will most likely be around six months.

It is recommended to slowly wean your child, both for their sake and yours. It can be physically painful for mothers if they wean too quickly, and it can also be emotionally troubling for your little one.

Weaning is a Personal Choice

The question of “when to wean?” is typically a personal one that can be influenced by so many factors! Fortunately, in the United States, a women’s right to breastfeed in public is protected in all 50 states.

However, legal protection doesn’t protect mothers from social taboos.

Cultural Considerations

We noted earlier that breastfeeding is a uniquely human experience that is shared across cultures. However, every culture seems to have a different perspective on best practices for breastfeeding.

For example, in some cultures, women are discouraged from breastfeeding if there are disputes in the family (lest the milk becomes tainted by anger and affect the baby).

In other cultures, such as Mongolia, breastfeeding in public is common and accepted.

For some, colostrum (milk produced earliest on when you begin breastfeeding) is not given to the baby for fear that it is weaker.

This goes to show how breastfeeding can be influenced in a variety of ways.

Weaning: A Social Construct

We’re pointing out some of these differences to highlight that the timeline for weaning, and the social taboo around breastfeeding, is just that – a social construct. The AAP will recommend a baby continue breastfeeding through their first birthday.

After the first birthday, AAP suggests continuing to breastfeed for as long as you and your baby are comfortable. AAP emphasizes that there has not been any developmental harm identified from breastfeeding an older child.

Some mothers will breastfeed a child into their toddler years and beyond. The Mayo Clinic states that most children worldwide are weaned between ages 2 and 4.

Mayo Clinic also highlights that it is common in some cultures to breastfeed until age 6 or 7.

Differences Between Developing and Developed Countries

UNICEF recently published data on breastfeeding worldwide and found that most developed countries had lower rates of breastfeeding than in the developing world.

The report identifies several possible causes for this, including, “personal, family, community, social, economic and legislative environments of the country and each family.”

Maternity Leave

Women’s maternity leave also correlates with breastfeeding rates. In countries like Sweden, mothers have more time off and can focus on breastfeeding to a greater extent than their counterparts in some Western countries.

Breastfeeding Support

The UNICEF report identified support as a critical factor in the duration and prevalence of breastfeeding. The support can come in the form of societal change, legislation, company maternity policies, or from within a mother’s inner circle of friends and family.

There is growing support for breastfeeding within the United States. For instance, the Surgeon General recently published a “Call to Action to Support Breastfeeding.”

Everyone is Different

The question of when to wean is ultimately a personal decision for you and your baby. As you continue in this journey, it is helpful to recall the fundamental facts about the health benefits of breastfeeding and to look for sources of support and community that can help you along the way.