How long should I breastfeed my baby?

Breastfeeding your baby for even a day is the best baby gift you can give. Breastfeeding is almost always the best choice for your baby. If it doesn't seem like the best choice for you right now, these guidelines may help.

If you breastfeed your baby for just a few days, he will have received your colostrum, or early milk. By providing antibodies and the food his brand-new body expects, breastfeeding gives your baby his first - and easiest - "immunization" and helps get his digestive system going smoothly. Breastfeeding is how your baby expects to start, and helps your own body recover from the birth. Given how little it takes to offer it, and how very much your baby stands to gain, it makes good sense to breastfeed for at least a day or two, even if you plan to bottle-feed after that.

If you nurse your baby for four to six weeks, you will have eased him through the most critical part of his infancy. Newborns who are not breastfed are much more likely to get sick or be hospitalized, and have many more digestive problems than breastfed babies. After four to six weeks, you'll probably have worked through any early breastfeeding concerns, too. Make a serious goal of nursing for a month, call La Leche League or make an appointment with a board certified lactation consultant if you have any questions, and you'll be in a better position to decide whether continued breastfeeding is for you.

If you breastfeed your baby for three or four months, her digestive system will have matured a great deal, and she will be much better able to tolerate the foreign substances in commercial formulas. Giving nothing but breastmilk for the first four months provides strong protection against ear infections for a whole year. If there is a family history of allergies, though, you will greatly reduce her risk by waiting a few more months before adding anything at all to her diet of breastmilk.

If you breastfeed your baby for six months without adding any other food or drink, she will be much less likely to suffer an allergic reaction to formula or other foods. The American Academy of Pediatrics and the World Health Organization recommend waiting until about six months to start solids. Nursing for at least six months helps ensure better health throughout your baby's first year of life, reduces the risk of ear infections and childhood cancers, and lowers your own risk of breast cancer. And exclusive, frequent breastfeeding during the first six months, if your periods have not returned, provides 98% effective contraception.

If you breastfeed your baby for nine months, you will have seen him through the fastest and most important brain and body development of his life on the food that was designed for him - your milk. Nursing for at least this long will help ensure better performance all through his school years. Weaning may be fairly easy at this age... but then, so is nursing! If you want to avoid weaning this early, be sure that, from the start, you nurse to provide comfort, not just to provide food.

If you begin weaning your baby at a year, you can avoid the expense and bother of formula. Her one-year-old body can probably handle most of the table foods your family enjoys. Many of the health benefits this year of nursing has given your child will last her whole life. She will have a stronger immune system, and will be much less likely to need orthodontia or speech therapy. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends nursing for at least a year, because it helps ensure normal nutrition and health for your baby.

If you begin weaning your baby at 18 months, you will have continued to provide nutrition, comfort, and protection from illness at a time when illness is common in formula-fed babies. Your baby is probably well started on table foods, too. He has had time to form a solid bond with you - a healthy starting point for his growing independence. And he is old enough that you and he can work together on the weaning process, at a pace that he can handle. A former U.S. Surgeon General said, "it is the lucky baby... who nurses to age two."

If your child weans when she is ready, you can feel confident that you have met her physical and emotional needs in a very normal, healthy way. In cultures where there is no pressure to wean, children tend to breastfeed for at least two years. The World Health Organization and UNICEF strongly encourage breastfeeding through toddlerhood: "Breastmilk is an important source of energy and protein, and helps to protect against disease during the child's second year of life." Our biology seems geared to a weaning age of between 2 1/2 and 7 years, and it makes sense to build our children's bones from the milk that was designed for them.

Your milk provides antibodies and other protective substances as long as you continue breastfeeding, and families of nursing toddlers often find that their medical bills are lower than their neighbors' for years to come.

Research indicates that the longer a child breastfeeds, the higher his intelligence. Mothers who nurse longterm have a still lower risk of developing breast cancer. Children who are nursed longterm tend to be very secure, and are less likely to suck their thumbs or carry a blanket.

Nursing can help ease both of you through the tears, tantrums, and tumbles that come with early childhood, and helps ensure that any illnesses are milder and easier to deal with. Don't worry that your child will nurse forever. All children stop on their own, no matter what you do, and there are more breastfed toddlers around than you might guess.

Whether you breastfeed for a day or for several years, the decision to breastfeed is one you need never regret. And whenever weaning takes place, remember that it is a big step for both of you. If you feel you must wean before your child is ready, be sure to do it gradually, and with love.

2003 Diane Wiessinger, MS, IBCLC Adapted and reprinted with permission.