How long you should breastfeed your baby

how long you should breastfeed your baby

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Opinions are like farts. Everyone has them, no one wants them shared, and they usually stink. That’s even truer when it comes to how long you should breastfeed your baby.

You might be surprised to find your mother-in-law is incredibly supportive, while your pediatrician is urging you to wean your baby. Or vice versa. You see, as loving as grandmothers are — and as educated as pediatricians are — everyone has their own personal bias. It’s hard to get past that.

So how long should you breastfeed your baby? What’s the best thing for your baby? And what’s best for you? What should you be determined to do vs hope for vs just think it would be nice if you could?

do you know how long you should breastfeed your baby?

Well here’s the data. Here are the official recommendations from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), as well as the average length of breastfeeding both worldwide and in North America.

And just so you’ll be fully informed, I’m tacking on the benefits of breastfeeding for infants, the benefits of extended breastfeeding for toddlers, and the benefits of all the breastfeeding for you.

You’re welcome.

The World Health Organization guidelines

What I love about the WHO is how they boil down all their findings to a succinct statement that really brooks no argument. And here is their official statement:

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.

World Health Organization

Now of course, they have documents and research that are much wordier. Feel free to dig their website if you have the time to read all that. But if you just wanna know what they suggest, there you have it.

The American Academy of Pediatrics Guidelines

When it comes to how long you should breastfeed, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) follows right along with the WHO on their guidelines. Only they blur that 6 months guideline just a bit.

Where the WHO says 6 months, the AAP says about 6 months. Interpret that how you will.

Here is their official statement:

…the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) reaffirms its recommendation of 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.

American Academy of Pediatrics

Just the same as the WHO, the AAP suggests that breastfeeding be exclusive for 6 months (give or take) then supplemented with healthy foods.

The AAP is more lax about the length to supplement and suggests at least 12 months, where the WHO recommends 24 months. Neither organization recommends a set end time for breastfeeding other than whatever the mother and baby prefer.

Average length of breastfeeding

Approximately 41% of babies worldwide are exclusively breastfed for the first six months of life. It ranges from about 80% in Sri Lanka (way to go, Sri Lanka!!!) to around 26% in North America, and a few points lower in the USA alone (it was about 19% in 2014).

While breastfeeding is mostly supported in the United States and growing in favor and popularity, the low rates for exclusive breastfeeding are probably due to many moms going back to work after 6-10 weeks of maternity leave.

Exclusively breastfeeding is very hard to do when you’re working. Most moms aren’t successful.

Related Post: How to keep breastfeeding after maternity leave

The average age for weaning across the world is between 2-4 years of age. Although that can be as high as 6-7 years for a few cultures. In the United States, the average age for weaning seems to be between 12 and 24 months, but this is my estimate based on information from the CDC website.

I haven’t been able to find any definitive information on the average weaning age in the United States.

how long you should breastfeed based on the benefits

The benefits of breastmilk for babies

“Imagine that the world had created a new ‘dream product’ to feed and immunize everyone born on earth. Imagine also that it was available everywhere, required no storage or delivery, and helped mothers plan their families and reduce the risk of cancer. Then imagine that the world refused to use it.”

Frank Oski

I’m sure you’ve heard all about giving young babies breastmilk.

“Breast is best.” “Nature’s perfect food.” “Custom milk just for your baby.”

So there’s no doubt it’s nutritious, and there’s no doubt it’s good for them. But what are the exact benefits of breastfeeding? Here’s a quick list for you:

  • Closer bond with mother
  • Better overall health
  • Protection against asthma and allergies
  • Immunity against infections
  • Custom immunity to help fight any sickness the mother might come down with
  • Protection against childhood digestive disorders
  • Less likely to develop ear infections
  • Protection against respiratory infections and pneumonia
  • Greater cognitive development
  • Risk of SIDS reduced by more than 1/3!

Those are just the highlights, that list is not all-inclusive. Read my post about how breastmilk benefits babies to learn more.

The benefits of breastmilk for toddlers

Breastmilk is every bit as beneficial for toddlers as it is for infants. But let’s be real here, breastmilk packs enough of a nutritional punch to be considered a superfood for adults too – they just won’t drink it.

There’s no known age at which breast milk is considered to become nutritionally insignificant for a child.

Mayo Clinic

Toddlers who are breastfed continue getting the same immune system boosting antibodies that infants get. They have increased protection against allergies, asthma, leukemia, and obesity.

I know, obesity looks kinda silly next to leukemia, but it can be deadly so don’t discount that!Toddlers who are breastfed are 15-30% LESS LIKELY to be obese as adolescents and adults.

Breastfed toddlers are healthier overall because they receive better nutrition. They generally have a higher IQ than toddlers drinking whole milk or toddler formula. They’re less likely to need speech therapy and they develop better communication skills.

Believe it or not, they even tend to be more independent than toddlers who don’t nurse! (That sorta flies in the face of the old “titty baby” insult, doesn’t it?)

And they’re much less likely to need orthodontic work. Hello, money saver!

Now like it or not, our western culture sexualizes breasts. So the older a child gets, the more people are creeped out by seeing them nursing. That’s pretty pathetic if you ask me, but it’s a fact nonetheless.

The cool thing about toddlers and breastmilk is that you don’t have to feed them directly from the breast if you don’t want to. Just like you can pump and give bottles to babies, you can slip breastmilk in a toddler’s sippy cup and no one has to know. Heck, you can even put breastmilk in their cereal!

And the food of anyone who complains that you’re still breastfeeding. (Too passive aggressive? Nah.)

The benefits of breastfeeding for mothers

Dear mama, we don’t wanna leave you out.

Of course you want what’s best for your baby. But breastfeeding is best for you, too. In fact, the longer you breastfeed the more you get out of it. Pretty cool, huh?

In the first few months, breastfeeding improves your responsiveness to your baby, your overall sense of wellbeing, reduces your likelihood of developing postpartum depression, provides good contraception, and helps you heal from childbirth.

Related Post: The best way to lose weight while breastfeeding

As you continue breastfeeding, your bond with your baby deepens, your risk of cancer is reduced – the longer you breastfeed, the less likely you are to develop breast cancer, endometrial cancer, ovarian cancer, and uterine cancer.

You’ll have less risk of developing Type 2 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, high blood pressure, and heart disease.

And as if that’s not enough, you’ll also see an average savings of $800-$1400 a year. (Seriously, that alone was enough to convince me!)

How long you should breastfeed is YOUR decision

So it’s recommended that you breastfeed exclusively for 6 months, continue offering breastmilk until at least 12 to 24 months of age, and wean completely whenever you and your child are ready.

Most women wean between 12-24 months. Extended breastfeeding makes for healthier kids, healthier moms, and a BIG savings of moolah.

For that reason, more and more moms are choosing to extend breastfeeding through their child’s toddler years. But the decision of when and how to wean i up to you and your baby.

BUT let me say this — you don’t have to breastfeed a day longer than you want to.

Don’t feel guilty if you can’t nurse for very long, or if you just don’t want to. (I had to stop breastfeeding my first child at 4 months because I had cancer. Guess what? We survived and we’re both thriving!)

Stopping early doesn’t make you a bad mom. No matter what the lactivists may say.

If you’re doing the best you can for your baby, you’re a GREAT mom.

Have you decided how long you should breastfeed your baby? When did you — or when will you — wean your kiddo from the breast? Please comment below and let me know!


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