How Long Should You Breastfeed Your Child?

Apr 11, 2022 Women's Health

How Long Should You Breastfeed Your Child?

Quick Health Scoop

  • Breast milk provides the gold standard to meet babies’ nutritional needs.
  • Experts recommend that babies are exclusively breastfed for the first six months, then continue up to at least their first birthday while simultaneously introducing solid foods.
  • Breastfeeding rates drop off at about six months, although many mothers continue to breastfeed up to one year and beyond.
  • Mothers stop breastfeeding for a variety of reasons, ranging from cultural norms to nutrition concerns to maintaining a good milk supply.

Congratulations on your decision to breastfeed your baby!

Good for both moms and babies, breast milk provides the best source of nutrition for most infants. Mother’s milk is safe, clean, convenient, and economical. Plus, breastfeeding delivers health benefits to both mothers and infants.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), a breastfed infant has a decreased risk of developing asthma, obesity, Type 1 diabetes, severe lower respiratory disease, ear infections, diarrhea/vomiting, and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).1 Furthermore, a breastfeeding mother reaps health benefits, too. Women who breastfeed their babies have a decreased risk of developing breast cancer, ovarian cancer, Type 2 diabetes, and high blood pressure.1

When it comes to nourishing your baby with a nutrient-packed milk supply, you can find plenty of nutrition guidance, such as this guide to breastfeeding diet for moms—including what foods to avoid while breastfeeding.

But when it comes to figuring out the ideal length of time you should breastfeed your baby, you might be getting conflicting information (and plenty of well-meaning opinions from friends and relatives). That’s why it helps to look at what the experts recommend. How long should you breastfeed a newborn? And what happens when that newborn turns into a toddler—is that too long to continue to nurse?

Read on to see what the science says about how long you should breastfeed.

How Long Does The Average Woman Breastfeed?

For starters, it helps to know when you should begin nursing. If possible, mothers should breastfeed their babies within the first hour of birth, and then continue whenever the infants exhibit feeding cues. While the frequency of nursing sessions varies, this typically means babies are breastfeeding about eight to 12 times every 24 hours.2

While nursing newborns makes sense, what about extended breastfeeding—perhaps into toddlerhood or beyond? How long should you breastfeed?

In the United States, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that mothers exclusively breastfeed their infants for the first six months. That means no baby food, formula, juice, or even water. Then, the AAP suggests introducing solid foods to infants at six months while continuing to breastfeed through the baby’s first year.2

The World Health Organization (WHO) also recommends breastfeeding exclusively for the infants’ first six months and introducing appropriate complementary foods to babies around six months. However, WHO recommends continued breastfeeding up to the age of two or even longer.3

According to the CDC, of the nearly 90 percent of infants who have ever been breastfed since birth, that number falls to 56.7 percent at six months and 35 percent at one year. Furthermore, only 25.8 percent of infants were breastfed exclusively through six months.4 Meanwhile, WHO data shows that nearly two out of three infants are not exclusively breastfed for the first six months.3 And even within the United States, there’s a disparity with breastfeeding. Babies in the southeastern part of the country or rural areas are less likely to be breastfed at six months than infants living in other parts of the country. And women who are younger (age 20-29) as well as non-Hispanic Black women are less likely to breastfeed their infants.4

Globally, only 41% of infants less than six months old are exclusively breastfed, says WHO. While 70% of mothers continue breastfeeding their babies for at least 12 months, that rate drops to 45% by the time babies turn two years old.5

Among women who choose to breastfeed, why do they stop? Reasons vary, but commonly include: lack of support from family/hospital/workplace, sore nipples, issues with lactation and latching, concerns about infant nutrition and weight gain, cultural norms.4,6

At What Age Is Breastfeeding No Longer Beneficial?

In addition to providing all the nutrients that infants need for the first six months, breast milk continues to provide up to half or more of babies’ nutritional needs during the second half of their first year, and up to one third during the baby’s second year of life.3

According to Mayo Clinic, “there's no known age at which breast milk is considered to become nutritionally insignificant for a child.”[7] As a breastfeeding mother, you might begin to introduce whole cow’s milk (no sooner than baby’s first birthday), whether you decide to stop breastfeeding altogether and are trying to wean your baby, or you’re looking to supplement your breast milk.

One thing to keep in mind? WHO points to the transition from exclusive breastfeeding to solid foods as “a very vulnerable period.” Why? Because many infants become malnourished during this transition, contributing considerably to the high occurrence of malnutrition in children under five years old around the world. [8]

Plus, breastfeeding babies beyond infancy continues to provide health benefits to mothers, including a decreased risk of breast cancer, ovarian cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes.7

As your infant grows into a baby and then a toddler, you might wonder how big of a role mother’s milk plays in your child's diet. It really depends on if you’re exclusively breastfeeding, when your child starts eating solids, and how much solid food your child eats.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists suggests that mothers should continue breastfeeding up to their baby’s first birthday as new foods are introduced, and then continue breastfeeding beyond that “for as long as you and your baby would like.” 9

 

Bottom Line

How long should you breastfeed? Just like the decision to have breastfed-baby or formula-fed baby is all yours, so is the decision on how long to breastfeed your child. Experts recommend breastfeeding exclusively for infants’ first six months, begin introducing solid foods around that time, and, if possible, continue breastfeeding through babies’ first year of life. While you should certainly talk to your baby's doctor about the pros and cons of extended breastfeeding, don’t worry about what other people think. The general consensus among experts? It’s your breastfeeding journey, so do what’s best for you and your child.

 

Continue to check back on the Nature Made blog for the latest science-backed articles to help you take ownership of your health.

This information is for educational purposes only and is not intended to serve as medical advice or a recommendation for any specific product. Consult your health care provider for more information. 

 

References

1 Centers for Disease Control. “Breastfeeding: Frequently Asked Questions.” August 10, 2021. Accessed on: October 13, 2021. https://www.cdc.gov/breastfeeding/faq/index.htm#benefits

2 American Academy of Pediatrics 1. “Where We Stand: Breastfeeding.” July 29, 2021. Accessed on: October 13, 2021. https://www.healthychildren.org/English/ages-stages/baby/breastfeeding/pages/Where-We-Stand-Breastfeeding.aspx

3 World Health Organization. “Breastfeeding.” 2021. Accessed on: October 13, 2021. https://www.who.int/health-topics/breastfeeding#tab=tab_1

4 CDC. “Key Breastfeeding Indicators.” August 24, 2021. Accessed on: October 14, 2021. https://www.cdc.gov/breastfeeding/data/facts.html

5 World Health Organization. “Global breastfeeding scorecard, 2019: increasing commitment to breastfeeding through funding and improved policies and programmes.” July 23, 2019. Accessed on: October 14, 2021. https://www.who.int/publications/i/item/WHO-NMH-NHD-19.22

6 Pediatrics. “Why Do Women Stop Breastfeeding? Findings From the Pregnancy Risk Assessment and Monitoring System.” December 2005. Accessed on: October 14, 2021. https://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/116/6/1408

7 Mayo Clinic. “Breast-feeding beyond infancy: What you need to know.” April 15, 2020. Accessed on: October 14, 2021. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/infant-and-toddler-health/in-depth/extended-breastfeeding/art-20046962

8 World Health Organization. “Breastfeeding.” 2021. Accessed on: October 14, 2021. https://www.who.int/news-room/q-a-detail/breastfeeding

9 American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. “Breastfeeding Your Baby.” May 2021. Accessed on: October 14, 2021. https://www.acog.org/womens-health/faqs/breastfeeding-your-baby

 

Authors

Lisa Beach

NatureMade Contributor

Lisa Beach is a seasoned journalist whose work has been published in The New York Times, Good Housekeeping, Eating Well, Parents, AARP’s Disrupt Aging, Optimum Wellness, and dozens more. She also writes for a variety of health/wellness-focused brands. Check out her writer’s website at www.LisaBeachWrites.com.

Read More

Sandra Zagorin, MS, RD

Science and Health Educator

As a member of the Medical and Scientific Communications team, Sandra educates healthcare professionals and consumers on nutrition, supplements, and related health concerns. Prior to joining Pharmavite, Sandra worked as a clinical dietitian at University of Chicago Medicine in the inpatient and outpatient settings. Sandra received her Bachelor of Science degree in Nutritional Science, with minors in Spanish and Chemistry from the University of Arizona in Tucson, AZ. She earned her Master of Science degree in Clinical Nutrition from RUSH University in Chicago, IL. As part of her Master’s program, Sandra performed research on physical activity participation and correlates in urban Hispanic women.

Read More