If you’re breastfeeding, it’s important to know how long to nurse your child so as to get the optimal health benefit for your baby. Most current research on the health benefits of breastfeeding centers on the first six months to a year of life. After this point, the medical data on extended breastfeeding–breastfeeding beyond a year old–tapers off, and the decision to breastfeed becomes a personal one. A 2008 Australian study conducted at the University of Western Sydney on long-term breastfeeding found that mothers who ended up breastfeeding longer than two years hadn’t planned to do so, but over time and with peer support they changed their minds.
How Long Do American Mothers Nurse
Breastfeeding for any length of time can be challenging. The Centers for Disease Control’s 2005 National Immunization Survey determined that nearly 75 percent of all U.S.-born babies were breastfed at some point. But the 2005 data shows that only about 12 percent of infants were exclusively breastfed through 6 months of age. A more recent study at Brigham Young University backed up this trend of diminishing breastfeeding over time, potentially spelling failure for the national goal of reaching the 50 percent mark by 2010. The data suggests that while many mothers try to follow prescribed guidelines for breastfeeding duration, they lose momentum. Knowing the recommended duration for nursing your child can help you in your efforts to build a support network around you to increase your chances of nursing longer.
Extended Breastfeeding Benefits
It’s been established that exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months and continued breastfeeding for up to a year are beneficial to both baby and mom. Breast milk is loaded with protection factors for the baby—antibodies that boost your baby’s immunity to illness and factors that reduce the risk of ear and respiratory infections, diabetes and other diseases and conditions. Breastfeeding mothers benefit, too, with a lower incidence of breast and ovarian cancers and adult onset diabetes. The benefits of extended breastfeeding are not as well known, and this may be because few studies follow cases of nursing beyond one year. The World Health Organization has determined that extended breastfeeding lowers the chances of infant mortality in other parts of the world where adequate nutrition is hard to come by.
The American Academy of Pediatrics’ official recommendation is to breastfeed your baby for the first 12 months, introducing solids somewhere between the age of 4 to 6 months and feeding no cow’s milk until a year old. Infant formula is the only acceptable alternative to breast milk, according to the Academy. An Academy spokeswoman, Dr. Ruth Lawrence, notes that there are no rules about when to stop breastfeeding after the first year. You can breastfeed for as long as you and your baby wish. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends breastfeeding for even longer than the first year if desired. The DHHS suggests starting solid foods—but not necessarily weaning–when your baby is about 6 months old. The World Health Organization recommends breastfeeding exclusively for 6 months, adding solids after that and continuing to breastfeed for 2 years or longer.
Starting Solids Controversy
Although the American Academy of Pediatrics suggests starting solids from 4 to 6 months, the 4-month window remains controversial. The Department of Nutrition for Health and Development and the Department of Child and Adolescent Health and Development did a review in 2002 called "The Optimal Duration of Exclusive Breastfeeding." Although individual cases may vary, the authors found data supporting the recommendation of exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months of life in developing countries as well as developed countries. Except for improving iron levels in infants in Honduras, the authors found no evidence supporting benefits for introducing foods between 4 and 6 months. The World Health Organization warns mothers to take special care and make sure that their young children have enough nourishment. Children under five are especially vulnerable to malnutrition during their conversion from exclusive breast milk to a full diet of solids.
Individual Circumstances Decide It
Every mother and baby team is different. Your specific circumstances are an important factor in deciding how long to nurse your child. Health considerations for both you and the baby, economic forces, your support network and other factors may come into play. The most well-established health benefit to your baby is during the first six months of exclusive breastfeeding. But if you want to nurse longer as many mothers do, then go ahead. For support, consult La Leche League International, an organization of breastfeeding mothers, a lactation consultant in your area and your doctor.