How Long You Should Try and Breastfeed, According to Doctors

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If the thought of breastfeeding triggers a cascade of questions and emotions, you’re not alone – it’s totally fair to feel overwhelmed. But the thing about breastfeeding is that it looks different from one family to the next. It can take time for a newborn to get the hang of things, and once you’re finally in some semblance of a routine, you’re likely going to start wondering, how long should you breastfeed?

Well, there isn’t necessarily a clear answer, says ob-gyn Sarah Borders, MD. That’s right: it’s going to be unique to you and your baby, she explains, whether it’s your first or fourth child.

Breastfeeding is also an intimately personal decision, often accompanied by a lot of emotion, which can make it harder to know the right time to stop, says lactation consultant Chrisie Rosenthal, IBCLC.

So while it’s hard to give an exact timeline of how long you should breastfeed, there are some general guidelines. PS talked with experts to find out everything you need to know, including the benefits of extended breastfeeding, when to stop breastfeeding, and how to know what’s right for you and your baby.

Experts Featured in This Article

Sarah Borders, MD, is an ob-gyn with Axia Women’s Health.

Chrisie Rosenthal, IBCLC, is an international board-certified lactation consultant and director of clinical resources at The Lactation Network.

Jenelle Ferry, MD, is a neonatologist and director of feeding, nutrition, and infant development at Pediatrix Medical Group.

How Long Should You Breastfeed?

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, American Academy of Pediatrics, and World Health Organization recommend exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life prior to the introduction of solid foods, says neonatologist Jenelle Ferry, MD. Each organization also recommends continued breastfeeding while complementary foods are introduced “as long as mutually desired by mother and baby” for two years and beyond, she adds.

Most babies self-wean sometime after a year old, but Dr. Borders says you can transition your baby to alternative milk (such as cow, almond, or soy) at 12 months if you choose.

Benefits of Extended Breastfeeding

“Extended breastfeeding” generally refers to breastfeeding beyond 12 months, and if you’re willing and able, it comes with a slew of the following benefits:

  • Nutrients: Breast milk contains the perfect amounts of vitamins and nutrients for your baby, Dr. Borders says. The composition of your milk also changes as your baby grows to meet their needs, she adds.
  • Bonding: Due to skin-to-skin contact and the intimate nature of breastfeeding, it can be a wonderful opportunity to bond with your infant, Dr. Borders says. It helps your baby feel safe, warm, and loved.
  • Convenience: Not only can you breastfeed on-the-go, but breast milk is always warm and ready whenever baby is hungry, Dr. Borders says.
  • Soothing: If your baby is fussy, Rosenthal says breastfeeding can be incredibly soothing (for mom and baby). The skin-to-skin contact also boosts your levels of oxytocin, a hormone that helps breast milk flow and promote calmness, per USDA WIC Breastfeeding Support.
  • Immunity: Breastfed infants have a stronger immune system to fight bacteria and infection and a lower risk of asthma, ear infection, diabetes, and diarrhea-related illness, Dr. Ferry says. Colostrum, the thick milk women produce right after birth, is also known to boost immunity.
  • Cost: Not only is breastfeeding free, but since breastfed babies may have a stronger immune system, it can keep health costs low, Dr. Borders says.
  • Digestion: Breast milk is easily digested and can even act as a laxative to prevent constipation in newborns, Dr. Borders says.
  • Maternal Health: For the parent, research shows that breastfeeding can reduce the risk of breast cancer, ovarian cancer, high blood pressure, diabetes, and heart disease, Dr. Borders says.

It’s also worth noting there are no downsides to extended breastfeeding, as long as it’s working for you and your baby, Dr. Ferry says.

When (and How) to Stop Breastfeeding

Here’s the deal: there is no “set time” to stop breastfeeding because it’s going to be specific to you and your baby, Dr. Ferry says. “You should stop breastfeeding once the process is no longer desired by you or your infant, ideally after the first 12 months of life,” she says.

With that in mind, any timeline is a general suggestion. If your mental health is impacted by the pressure of breastfeeding and/or pumping, you should reevaluate, Dr. Borders says. “If you are going to be a better parent by switching to formula, then it’s time to consider weaning.”

Now, how you stop breastfeeding largely depends on your baby’s age, their interest in breastfeeding, and what your milk supply is like, Dr. Ferry says. “For a mother who has been struggling with supply, she can likely wean off pretty quickly, but for a mother with a robust milk supply, she will benefit from gradually decreasing the number of times a day and duration of each feeding,” she explains. If you’re an “over-producer,” Dr. Borders also emphasizes you’ll need to very slowly wean to prevent clogged milk ducts and mastitis infections.

In terms of age and interest, most babies will naturally self-wean after 12 months. Older infants or toddlers who become less interested in, or more distracted during, breastfeeding will also likely wean themselves naturally, and essentially feed less (in quantity and frequency) until not latching at all, Dr. Ferry says.

In any case, working with a lactation consultant can be extremely helpful in creating an individualized weaning plan, Dr. Borders says. “I think every breastfeeding parent should have a lactation consultant readily available because breastfeeding takes a lot of practice and patience and does not come ‘naturally’ as many believe it should.”

How to Decide What’s Right For You

In general, it’s a good idea to try breastfeeding unless you’re diagnosed with HIV, herpes lesions on your nipple, tuberculosis, or your baby is diagnosed with galactosemia (a metabolic disorder that affects how a baby processes a simple sugar called galactose), Dr. Borders says. However, breastfeeding rarely comes easily, so it’s best to give it at least two weeks for you and your baby to practice before making the decision to stop, she says.

Again, breastfeeding is a very personal decision and weaning can be emotional, Rosenthal says. “When you start thinking about weaning, talk to your lactation consultant and the two of you can discuss various weaning methods, how long they take, and what the process looks like.” It’s also best to make any breastfeeding changes or decisions during a downtime without other big transitions like moving, changing sleeping arrangements, or returning to work, Rosenthal says. “Too much change at once can make it harder on both of you.”

It’s also important to be patient. “Don’t decide to wean just because you’re having a bad day or a bad week,” Rosenthal says. “Bad days are often fleeting, and the baby quickly moves into a better stage.”

And most importantly, remember that you know what is best for your baby, says Dr. Borders. “Make sure to trust your intuition.” If you have questions or concerns, talk with your doctor, pediatrician, and/or lactation consultant. They’re here to help.

Related: Should You Bank Your Baby’s Cord Blood? Here’s What the Experts Say

Andi Breitowich is a Chicago-based freelance writer and graduate from Emory University and Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. Her work has appeared in PS, Women’s Health, Cosmopolitan, and elsewhere.

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