breastfeeding

At what age is breast milk most important?

Breastfeeding is more than the act of just feeding your little one. It also provides an incredible number of health benefits to both you and your baby—in addition to all the money saved on formula. That’s why the American Academy of Pediatrics and the World Health Organization both recommend breastfeeding for the first six months and then continuing to breastfeed for one year or longer, as desired by mom and baby. Whether you breastfeed for four months, nine months, a year or more, you’ll give your baby and yourself a priceless gift with effects that carry over into the years to come. Breastfeeding also helps our society as a whole by reducing healthcare costs, environmental waste and the need for maternal sick days. Here is a timeline of the key health benefits of breastfeeding for mom and baby to keep you motivated, even when things get tough.

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What are the breastfeeding recommendations?

There are numerous benefits to breastfeeding for babies and mothers, but how long do you need to breastfeed to experience these benefits? And is there a point when breastfeeding can become harmful?

Both the World Health OrganizationTrusted Source (WHO) and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) suggest that mothers across the globe exclusively breastfeed infants for the first six months of life. This means no other food or drink besides breast milk for the first half-year of a baby’s life. They also recommend that breastfeeding be continued for at least the first year, with additional foods being added starting at six months.

Breastfeeding for a year may not be possible for all women. Read on to learn how breastfeeding for shorter amounts of time, or how combining breastfeeding with formula, may still benefit the baby.

breastfeeding

What are the benefits of breastfeeding?

There are numerous benefits to breastfeeding, even if you decide to breastfeed for just a few days. Here are some of the highlights according to the age of your child.

First days

Experts recommend that babies are kept close to their mothers and begin breastfeeding as soon as the first hour after birth. The benefits at this time include close skin-to-skin contact for the baby and the stimulation of milk for the mother.

At first, the baby receives a thick, yellow substance called colostrum. Colostrum is the first stage of breast milk and contains important nutrients and antibodies for the newborn. In the following days, the breast milk fully comes in to provide early nutrition, and may even help protect the baby from infection.

First month

The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) describes breast milk as baby’s first immunization. Breast milk provides protective antibodies through at least the first year of a baby’s life. These antibodies protect against:

  • infectious diarrhea
  • ear infections
  • chest infections
  • other health issues, like digestive problems

Moms get the benefit of feel-good hormones, oxytocin and prolactin. Together, these hormones may produce feelings of joy or fulfilment.

Women who breastfeed may also bounce back from birth faster as nursing helps the uterus contract back to its normal size more quickly.

3 to 4 months

As babies enter the third month of life, breast milk continues to support the digestive system. It also provides some babies with protection against allergens found in other foods and supplements.

Continued breastfeeding may help mom burn an extra 400 to 500 calories per day, which can help you to maintain a healthy postpartum weight.

Breastfeeding may help with internal health for mom as well. Some researchTrusted Source shows that nursing may lower the risk of type 2 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, and cardiovascular disease. More research is needed to understand the connection fully.

Six months

The benefits of breastfeeding continue even with the addition of table foods, which doctors recommend at six months of age. Breast milk can continue to provide energy and protein, as well as vitamin A, iron, and other key nutrients. Not only that, but breast milk continues to protect the baby against disease and illness for as long as they consume it.

For mom, reaching this milestone may reduce the riskTrusted Source of breast cancer and other cancers, like ovarian, endometrial, and uterine cancers. In fact, according to a report released by the World Cancer Research Fund and the American Institute for Cancer Research in 2017, for every five months of breastfeeding, a woman may reduce risk of breast cancer by 2 per cent.

Exclusive breastfeeding may also provide up to 98 per cent effective contraception in the first six months if the menstrual period has not yet returned, and mom continues nightly feedings. Of course, if another baby is not in the plan, it’s smart to use a backup method, like condoms.

Nine months

Feeding recommendations between 6 and 12 months of age include breastfeeding on demand and offering other foods between 3 to 5 times a day. During this time, breast milk should still be offered before meals, with table foods considered supplemental.

With the exception of a possible continued reduction in the risk for breast cancer, sources do not note a continued lowering of the risk of other illnesses to moms who breastfeed longer than six months.

One year

Another benefit of breastfeeding long-term is cost savings. You’re likely to save a great deal of money on formula, which can average just over $800 on the low end to upwards of $3,000 in the first year.

Babies who are breastfed for a year also may have stronger immune systems and may be less likely to need speech therapy or orthodontic work. Why? The theory is that all that sucking at the breast helps to develop muscles in and around the mouth.

Beyond a year

Feeding recommendations at a year and beyond include breastfeeding on demand and offering other foods five times a day. You may also introduce cow’s milk at this time if you wish to stop offering breast milk, or are looking for a breast milk substitute.

Some older research suggests that longer duration breastfeeding may give kids an edge when it comes to IQ scores and social development. However, more recent research trusted Source has found that the benefits to IQ may only be temporary.

Benefits of Extended Breastfeeding

It provides nutrition for the baby

A lot of people think there is no nutritive value after a year, and that is just simply not true. Regardless of how old your baby is, he or she will continue to benefit from the protein, calcium, fat, vitamin A, and other nutrients in breast milk. Weiss compares the nutrition benefits to a vegetable, like spinach. The amount of spinach you eat doesn’t take away from its nutritional value. Spinach, whether it’s your first serving or your 1,000th, is still good for you.

It boosts the immune system

Babies who breastfeed have decreased incidences of illness and lower mortality rates. The immunity benefits improve the longer a baby breastfeeds. The longer you breastfeed, the less likely your baby is to have some of the illnesses that we associate with not breastfeeding, like ear infections and upper respiratory infections. 

It makes moms healthier

Moms who breastfeed are less likely to have breast cancer. There’s also a reduced risk of ovarian cancer and endometrial cancer. The benefits are cumulative, meaning that if a mom breastfeeds two babies for two years each, the benefit is equal to that of a mom who breastfeeds four babies each for a year.

It boosts brain development

Studies have shown that breastfeeding helps boost brain development in babies. And it’s not just from the nutrients: Weiss says that babies who nurse off of both breasts are put into different positions, and have the chance to look and reach in different directions. When moms bottle-feed babies, the instinct is to use the dominant hand and put the baby in the same position at every feeding. Weiss encourages moms who use bottles to switch things up, changing the position of the baby and the bottle, to help exercise the baby’s reach and mind.

It’s soothing to the baby

Breastfeeding is a chance for Mom and baby to connect, but it’s also a way of calming a baby in a stressful situation. Weiss says she’d rely on breastfeeding when her children fell and hurt themselves. It gave her away to distract and soothe the child, while also checking him or her out for cuts and bruises.

It’s calming for moms

Moms have a lot to do, and it’s easy to get caught up in work, chores, and family matters. Weiss says that she always loved the break that nursing brought. She knew it was a time just for her and the baby, and everything else could wait. For me, breastfeeding was always my chance to sit down and calm down.

It’s calming for moms

Although extended breastfeeding does take some planning, Weiss says that it can also be much more convenient than formula. I think probably the best salesperson for that is the crying baby and the frantic mom. It’s a lot faster to unhook your bra and pull the baby close and nurse the baby,” she says. Plus, she adds, when your baby starts eating solid foods, the diapers get increasingly stinky. So you have the convenience of a baby who’s not as smelly.

It leads to a smaller waist

According to a December 2018 study published in the Journal of Women’s Health, breastfeeding for at least six months is associated with a smaller waist and hip circumference for mothers – even 15 years after delivery.

What are the benefits of breastfeeding beyond infancy?

The benefits of breastfeeding beyond infancy for a child include:

 

  • Balanced nutrition. Breast milk is considered the gold standard for infant nutrition. There’s no known age at which breast milk is considered to become nutritionally insignificant for a child.
  • They boosted immunity. As long as you breastfeed, the cells, hormones and antibodies in your breast milk will continue to bolster your child’s immune system.

The benefits of breastfeeding beyond infancy for a mother include:

  • Reduced risk of certain illnesses. Breastfeeding for 12 months or more cumulatively in life has been shown to reduce the risk of breast cancer, ovarian cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes.

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What role does breast milk play in an older baby’s diet?

It depends on how much breast milk your child is drinking.

After age 1, a child might continue regularly drinking a moderate amount of breast milk. As a result, breast milk will continue to be a source of nutrients for him or her. Other children, however, might use solid foods to meet their nutritional needs and want only small amounts of breast milk.

If you have questions about your child’s diet or the role breast milk might play in it as he or she grows, talk to your child’s doctor.

Will breastfeeding beyond infancy make the weaning process more difficult?

Not necessarily.

It’s often easiest to begin weaning when your child initiates the process — which might be sooner or later than you expect.

Weaning often begins naturally at about the age of six months, when solid foods are typically introduced. Some babies begin to gradually transition from breast milk and seek other forms of nutrition and comfort closer to age 1. Others might not initiate weaning until their toddler years when they become less willing to sit still during breastfeeding.

How can I handle negative reactions to breastfeeding beyond infancy?

How long you breastfeed is up to you and your child. If loved ones — and even strangers — share their opinions about when to wean, remind them that the decision is yours. Try not to worry about what other people think. Instead, trust your instincts.

Breastfeeding beyond infancy can be an intimate way to continue nurturing your child. If you’re considering breastfeeding beyond infancy, think about what’s best for both you and your child — and enjoy this special time together.

Why Is Breastfeeding So Good For Baby?

Good For Humans

Breastmilk is human milk for human babies. It is custom-made by each mom and changes over time to meet her baby’s needs. Mom’s milk has hundreds of more ingredients than formula and protects the baby from illness. When an infant is born early, his mother’s milk is especially important because it is specifically made to meet his developmental needs.

Good For Health Now

Breastfed babies are healthier and get sick less often. They have a lower risk of stomach problems, infections (such as ear and respiratory infections), getting the cold or flu, and being hospitalized for pneumonia and meningitis.

Good For Health Later

The benefits of breastfeeding last far after breastfeeding has stopped. Breastfeeding helps protect against childhood leukemia as well as diabetes, obesity, and hypertension later on.

Exclusive vs. combination feeding

There are many reasons women decide to supplement feeding with bottles of breast milk or commercial formulas. Breastfeeding doesn’t need to be all-or-nothing. Your baby can still benefit from receiving some breast milk.

When you combine some feeds with breast milk and others with formula, it’s called combination feeding. Some benefits of combination feeding include:

  • skin-to-skin contact with mom for bonding
  • the benefit of sucking at the breast for oral development
  • exposure to antibodies that help with allergy and disease prevention
  • continued health benefits for mom

Combo feeding can be especially helpful to work moms who don’t wish to pump at work or are otherwise unable to pump. Keep in mind that some babies may “reverse cycle” and nurse more frequently when they’re together with mom.

Are there risks to extended breastfeeding?

In different parts of the world, the average weaning age is between 2 and 4 years old. Some children are breastfed until ages 6 or 7 in other cultures.

There aren’t any well-known risks of continuing breastfeeding longer than the first one or two years. There also isn’t compelling evidence to suggest that longer duration of a feeding relationship makes weaning more difficult.

Deciding to wean

The WHO suggestsTrusted Source continuing breastfeeding with complementary foods until the child’s second birthday or beyond. The AAP suggests continuing breastfeeding along with foods until the child’s first birthday, or as long beyond that as mutually desired by mother and baby.

Some signs your baby may be ready to wean include:

  • being over a year old
  • getting more nutrition from solid foods
  • drinking well from a cup
  • gradually cutting down on nursing sessions unprompted
  • resisting nursing sessions

That said, the decision over when to wean is personal. If you’re ready to wean before your child reaches these milestones, don’t worry. You’re doing an amazing job no matter how you continue to feed your baby.

How to wean

Weaning begins with the baby’s introduction to table foods, so you may already be on your way without realizing it. Actively dropping breastfeeding feeds is the next step in the process once meals are better established.

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Some tips:

  • Taper off versus going cold turkey to help your supply lessen without engorgement issues. Try dropping only one feed every one or two weeks, for example.
  • Start by dropping midday feeds. The first and last feedings of the day are generally more difficult to stop for baby and because of engorgement.
  • Change up your routine around usual feeding times. For example, avoid sitting in familiar nursing spots.
  • Offer expressed breast milk in a cup or bottle. Your child will still get the benefits of breast milk, just from a different source.
  • Relieve discomfort by applying cold compresses or even cabbage leaves to your breasts.

If you sense resistance or if your child wants to nurse, breastfeed them. The process might not be linear, and you can always try again tomorrow. In the meantime, work on methods of distraction with meals, toys, or stuffed animals, and other activities. And be sure to offer your little one lots of close contact and cuddles during the transition.

Ultimately, how long you breastfeed is up to you and your baby. There are benefits if you breastfeed only a few days and others that continue for years for both mother and child. You and your baby can also benefit from combination feedings, or supplementing breast milk with other food sources, like formula or solids.

Trust yourself and try your best not to worry what others think of your personal decisions. If you need support with feeding issues or other questions, consider reaching out to your doctor or a lactation specialist in your area.

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