How long should I breastfeed my baby for?

How long should I breastfeed my baby for? - Transcript

If you’ve already started breastfeeding you may be wondering how long you should breastfeed for. You might be surprised to learn that the World Health Organisation recommend exclusive breastfeeding for six months and that’s breast milk with nothing else at all – no water, no solids, no formula – just breast milk, and then combined with the introduction of complementary foods, to carry on breastfeeding for up to two years and beyond.

Many countries across the world have adopted this recommendation in full but some haven’t. That includes England, and our department of health tends to recommend breastfeeding up to one year and beyond, or for as long as the mother and baby want. So I think it can be really useful to learn as much as you can about breastfeeding and the advantages (particularly the health advantages at various stages of your baby’s development.

Even from the first feed the colostrum which is produced first of all- very thick sticky low volume milk – it’s packed full of antibodies and it provides almost like a ‘teflon’ coating for the inside of your baby’s gut. This will prevent allergens and pathogens coming into your baby’s body. Because of this it’s almost like an immunisation for your baby, as well as the fact that this colostrum will help to develop your baby’s digestive system too.

It’s good to know that this first milk, colostrum ,will help to clear your baby’s bowel and get rid of that first sticky black meconium.

So even 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 as well – this is a very important thing.

It’s really good to know too that over the first few weeks of breastfeeding you’re going to substantially reduce your baby’s risk of being hospitalised with various illnesses. Some of these illnesses include chest infections and diarrhoea, ear infections and urinary tract infections. In areas where the breastfeeding rates are higher we see far less hospitalisation for these particular illnesses. If your baby has been born prematurely then breast feeding even in those first few weeks can half your baby’s risk of heart disease for the future.

If you reach eight weeks of exclusive breast feeding there are some great advantages for your own health. That is that your risk of ovarian cancer is reduced. By the three month mark of exclusive breastfeeding your baby is now five times less likely to get diarrhoea, and there seems to be a protective effect throughout the year too.

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

It’s fantastic if you’ve managed to get to six months exclusive breastfeeding. This has certainly reduced your baby’s incidence of obesity and there are some recent studies showing a reduction in risk of liver disease in adolescence because of six months exclusive breastfeeding.

For your health the exclusive breast feeding will have reduced your risk of getting Osteoporosis in the future, a reduction in risk of fractures. It also really helps to protect against breast cancer, so the more exclusively you breastfeed the reduction in risk increases.

Being able to carry on with breastfeeding after six months is wonderful for an ongoing development of your baby’s brain – increasing that cognitive development. We know there are babies who are later on in life showing better cognitive function when they get to school.

In the second half of the year between six and 12 months your breastmilk will still provide three quarters of your baby’s nutritional requirements, alongside solids – and having reached that six month mark of exclusive breastfeeding, and then to have carried on over the next few months, this will have substantially reduced your baby’s risk of obesity. We certainly know that babies regulate their intake at the breast far better, and they tend to know when they are full.

Lots and lots and lots of studies have pointed to the very protective element here with breastfeeding, and additionally it’s great to know that every extra month of breastfeeding will be enhancing your baby’s immune system and preventing illness.

Breastfeeding mothers tell me that sometimes even a health professional has suggested that there are no real benefits to breastfeeding past 12 months. But we know that the immunity that your baby gets from breastfeeding will carry on – those antibodies are still there in the milk, still protecting your baby, and there are ongoing health benefits as the months roll by.

Not only that but we know that breast milk is still providing a really good source of nutrition combined with all the family foods that your baby will be having by this stage, so it’s still contributing to nutrition, and also providing that really solid bond between you and your baby.

Many studies seem to be pointing to this solid bond that has been forming between you and your baby and is the foundation for future relationships too. Please be assured that your breast milk will still be protecting against disease throughout the whole of the second year as well as providing a really good source of protein and energy.

I find it really interesting to look at other mammals across the world and understand how long they breastfeed for. Certainly from an anthropological point of view, it’s been estimated that humans would naturally breastfeed between two and a half and seven years – and this can come as quite a surprise. So despite what you see around and the comments that people make and the lack of understanding that people have around breastfeeding, it’s good to look at these things to gain a better view of how long Breastfeeding should continue.

If you are breastfeeding your little one after two years of age, not only will you be aware of the ongoing protection that you breast milk offers, but you’ll also notice that breastfeeding a toddler can really help to manage those difficult times between toddlerhood and early childhood.

At some stage your little one will wean from the breast, and that’s very variable from mother to toddler and mother to toddler. So have a look at the video was related to the topic for added information. But I just want to say that for 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

V1 published June 2017. Next review date: April 2020

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