How long to breastfeed my baby for?

How long should I breastfeed my baby for?

If you’ve already started breastfeeding, you may be wondering how long to breastfeed.

The World Health Organisation recommends exclusive breastfeeding for six months.

Exclusive breastfeeding means ONLY breast milk with nothing else at all – no water, no solids, no formula.

After six months, you can combine breastfeeding with the introduction of complementary foods.

The recommendation is then to carry on breastfeeding for up to two years and beyond.

Many countries across the world have adopted this recommendation in full.

However, some, including England, recommends breastfeeding to one year and beyond, or as long as the mother wants.

It can be advantageous to learn as much as you can about breastfeeding and particularly the health advantages of continuing to provide breast milk at various stages of your baby’s age and development.

Health Benefits for Babies

The first feed of colostrum which your baby receives immediately after the birth is very thick, sticky, low volume milk, packed full of antibodies, and this milk provides a protective coating for the inside of your baby’s gut.

The colostrum prevents allergens and pathogens from coming into your baby’s body and acts to kick-start his immunity, as well as helping to develop your baby’s digestive system.

Baby being breastfed whilst lying down

This same milk will help to clear your baby’s bowel and get rid of that first sticky black meconium poo.

If your plans for breastfeeding haven’t worked out so well, know that this first milk has been an excellent start.

Even if you breastfeed for only a few days, the hormones that are involved when you do breastfeed, also help to contract your womb, which is very important.

Over the first few weeks of breastfeeding, you will substantially reduce your baby’s risk of being hospitalized with various illnesses. Some of these illnesses include chest infections, diarrhea, ear infections, and urinary tract infections.

In areas where breastfeeding rates are higher, there is far less hospitalization for these particular illnesses.

If your baby has been born prematurely, providing your milk to him in those first few weeks can also half his risk of heart disease for the future.

By the three month mark of exclusive breastfeeding, your baby is now five times less likely to get diarrhea, and there seems to be a protective effect throughout the year too.

Four months of exclusive breastfeeding can delay or prevent atopic dermatitis, and cows’ milk protein allergies, even if there is a family history.

For mothers able to get to six months of exclusive breastfeeding, your baby has a reduced risk of becoming obese.

Some recent studies show a reduction in the risk of liver disease in adolescence with six months of exclusive breastfeeding.

In the second half of the year between six and 12 months, your breastmilk can still provide three-quarters of your baby’s nutritional requirements, alongside solids. 

Many studies point to the protective effect of breastfeeding, and it’s great to know that with every extra month of breastfeeding, your baby’s immune system is enhanced, and this, in turn, helps to prevent illness.

Mum holding her baby while breastfeeding

Being able to carry on with breastfeeding after six months is terrific for the ongoing development of your baby’s brain, with studies showing better cognitive function when they get to school age.

Breastfeeding mothers tell me that sometimes a health professional has suggested that there are no real benefits to breastfeeding past the age of 12 months.

However, we know that the immunity that your baby gets from breastfeeding will carry on – those antibodies are still there in the milk and continue to protect your baby, and the health benefits continue as the months roll by.

We also know that breast milk still provides a really good source of nutrition, combined with all the family foods that your baby will be having by this stage. 

Furthermore, ongoing breastfeeding also provides an excellent psychological bond between you and your baby, with many studies suggesting that this lays the foundation for positive future relationships too. 

Please also be assured that your breast milk will still be protecting against disease throughout the whole of your baby’s second year, as well as providing an excellent source of protein and energy.

If you are breastfeeding your little one after two years of age, you will be still offering protection, and you’ll also notice that breastfeeding a toddler can help to manage those difficult times between toddlerhood and early childhood – a fantastic parenting tool!

Close up of a baby breastfeeding

Health Benefits for Mothers

But the health benefits aren’t for your baby only.

If you reach eight weeks of exclusive breastfeeding, there are significant advantages for your health too, for instance, you lower your risk of ovarian cancer.

Six months of exclusive breastfeeding will reduce your risk of getting osteoporosis in the future, meaning a reduction in the risk of fractures.

You also lower the risk of breast cancer when you breastfeed.

Other Mammals breastfeeding patterns

If we consider how other mammals across the world breastfeed for and compare ourselves, from an anthropological point of view, it is estimated that humans would naturally breastfeed between two and a half and seven years, which is somewhat surprising. 

So despite what you see in society, it’s clear that many people have a lack of understanding around breastfeeding, and it’s worth considering how long other mammals breastfeed to gain a better sense of how long breastfeeding can continue.

Final thoughts

However, at some stage, your little one will wean from the breast. The timing of this is very variable.

Be encouraged that however long you have breastfed, whether it was hours or days or weeks or years, every drop of breastmilk is valuable, and congratulate yourself on your achievement.

Review dates, references & further resources

Review Dates

Version 1.1 published in March 2019. Next review date: Jan 2022


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