How long should you breastfeed for? If you’re asking this question, it’s likely because of one of the following reasons:
- You want to know what the official recommendations are for breastfeeding;
- You are considering stopping breastfeeding and you want to know if it is okay to do this; or
- You want to breastfeed for longer (i.e., extended breastfeeding) and you want to know if this is okay.
Each of these considerations is addressed below.
How long should you breastfeed according to official recommendations? When it comes to establishing official guidelines for breastfeeding, most medical and health organizations — including the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Canadian Pediatric Society — follow the recommendations put out by the
World Health Organization, which are as follows:
“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. Colostrum, the yellowish, sticky breast milk produced at the end of pregnancy, is recommended by WHO as the perfect food for the newborn, and feeding should be initiated within the first hour after birth.
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.” (WHO 2009)
In other words, official health guidelines recommend that babies be fed only breast milk for approximately the first six months of life. At about six months, when solid foods are introduced, continued, non-exclusive breastfeeding is recommended for as long as mom and baby are still enjoying it.
Even though the WHO text doesn’t state this as clearly as it possibly could, the answer to the question “how long should you breastfeed” is: once baby is getting solid foods, it’s really up to you to decide how much longer to breastfeed for.(1-2)
How long should you breastfeed? If you are thinking of stopping breastfeeding before the big “six month” milestone, you might be feeling a bit worried. Well, here is some information that may help provide some perspective.
- Official recommendations for how long should you breastfeed are standardized, population-level recommendations. They are meant to provide consistency about what the official “message” should be about infant feeding. At the end of the day, though, every baby is different, and every mother’s situation is unique.
So, the specific best thing for you may very well involve deviating in some way or another from the standard message. Not only is this okay, it’s part of what becoming a self-aware, empowered, and informed parent is all about.
- Remember that the World Health Organization (the organization from which our recommendations derive) has a global mandate. This means they need to make recommendations that take the entire world into account.
The health outcomes of feeding breast milk vs. formula milk are totally different when comparing developing countries (larger health differences between formula and breast milk) to developed ones (much smaller differences between formula and breast milk).(3) If you are living in the developed world, reaching that six month mark for exclusive breastfeeding is good — but it’s certainly not crucial.
- The scientific literature is increasingly recognizing that we are not doing a proper job of communicating the relative risks/benefits of breast milk and formula.(3-8) Because we are so keen to promote and support breastfeeding, we over-inflate the benefits of breastfeeding, at the same time as we over-inflate the risks of formula feeding.
The bottom line is this: if you are thinking of stopping breastfeeding before the officially recommended time, don’t stress too much — especially if your baby is already getting some solid foods, and/or if you’ve found a formula that you feel relatively comfortable with. Even though breast milk is the healthiest choice, formula is a safe and healthy alternative.
One thing to keep in mind, though, is that it can be difficult to re-establish breastfeeding once you stop. So, if you are not yet sure about what you want to do, I would suggest keeping up with some breastfeeding until you feel certain about wanting to stop.
How long should you breastfeed if you really love it? When wondering how long should you breastfeed, many women wonder if extended breastfeeding is okay. (Extended breastfeeding is typically defined as breastfeeding beyond the first year.) And the short answer is:
Yes, extended breastfeeding is perfectly fine.
If you and your baby are really enjoying this time together, there is no need to stop breastfeeding. Indeed, many mothers do continue to breastfeed into toddler-hood, and in many parts of the world it is the norm to breastfeed for more than two years.
However, because extended breastfeeding is not the cultural norm in Western societies, you may feel a certain lack of support — or even disagreement — from others about the practice.(9) That said, if you feel strongly about wanting to continue, don’t let others discourage you from doing so — do what feels right for you, for your child, for your family.
Sometimes, finding support from other moms can help. The
La Leche League is an excellent resource for breastfeeding support, especially extended breastfeeding.
Do you Have a Feeding Question you Need Answered? Click here to ask it!
Thinking of Stopping Breastfeeding? Click here for tips
See my review of Milkshake An excellent and funny novel about breastfeeding
Return from this “How Long Should You Breastfeed” article to Newborn Feeding
Sources for this how long should you breastfeed article:
1. World Health Organization. “Breastfeeding” Located at http://www.who.int/topics/breastfeeding/en/
2. Calgary Health Region. 2008. From Here Through Maternity: A Resource for Families. Calgary, Canada: Author.
3. Knaak, S. 2006. The problem with breastfeeding discourse. Canadian Journal of Public Health, 97(5), 412-414.
4. Knaak, S. 2010 (forthcoming) “Contextualizing Risk, Constructing Choice: Breastfeeding and Good Mothering in Risk Society,” Health, Risk & Society.
5. Kukla, R. 2006. Ethics and ideology in breastfeeding advocacy campaigns. Hypatia, 21(1), 157-180.
6. Wolf, J.B. 2007. Is breast really best? Risk and total motherhood in the national breastfeeding awareness campaign. Journal of Health Politics, Policy and Law, 32(4), 595-636.
7. Law, J. 2000. The politics of breastfeeding: Assessing risk, dividing labor. Signs, 25(2), 407-450.
8. Wall, G. 2001. Moral constructions of motherhood in breastfeeding discourse. Gender & Society, 15(4), 592-610.
9. Van Esterik, P. 2002. Contemporary trends in infant feeding research. Annual Review of Anthropology, 31, 257-78.