As a new mom or mom-to-be, information seems to be everywhere. Friends, relatives, that nice lady bagging your groceries at the store, everyone is eager to share conflictive tidbits with you, solicited or not. Breastfeeding is one of those subjects that seems to polarize a lot of attention — especially the questions of how long you should breastfeed, what to do if you’re breastfeeding while on medication, and how long your baby should feed on each breast.
Perhaps the best place to start this discussion, because moms are often judged for their decision either way, is how long they should be breastfeeding their baby. Between your hippie aunt who practiced it for years in a 1970s commune and your grandma who clutches her pearls at the idea of a baby with teeth nursing, which should you believe is right?
What Experts Have to Say
Experts are pretty much universal: babies should be exclusively breastfed until at least six months.
- The World Health Organization says, “exclusive breastfeeding is recommended up to 6 months of age.”
- UNICEF recommends, “initiation of breastfeeding within the first hour after the birth; exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months.”
- The American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) recommends that “all babies, with rare exceptions, be breastfed and/or receive expressed human milk exclusively for the first six months of life.”
- And, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) considers that “exclusive breastfeeding is recommended for the first 6 months of a baby’s life.”
Past six months, solid foods can be introduced but the breastfeeding relationship should be maintained “up to two years of age or beyond” for the WHO and “for two years or more” for UNICEF. The AAFP and ACOG are not as categorical on the subject. While they consider that “breastfeeding should continue with the addition of complementary foods throughout the second half of the first year” (AAFP) and “breastfeeding should continue up to the baby’s first birthday as new foods are introduced” (ACOG), anything breastfeeding beyond the child’s first birthday is up to mom and baby, and up to them only.
Breastfeeding Is a Relationship
Breastfeeding is a relationship, and as such, you can keep breastfeeding as long as both you and your child are happy with doing so. Toddlers rarely self-wean before 24 months. Some do so earlier if their mother is pregnant again since the taste of milk can change to prepare for the new baby, but according to Katherine Dettwyler, anthropologist, most children self-wean “between three and four years of age.”
That said, moms often grow tired of nursing earlier. Some of them even report negative feelings towards breastfeeding and are anxious to get their body back. Weaning is part of the breastfeeding process, and you should not feel guilty about stopping.
Bottom line? Experts across the board recommend breastfeeding until at least 12 months and more. However, at the end of the day, the only experts on your own breastfeeding relationship are you and your baby. Consult your pediatrician, but you can, and should, breastfeed for as long as you both enjoy it.