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How Long To Breastfeed: What the Guidelines Say and What To Consider

Recommendations encourage breast milk exclusively for baby’s first six months and continuing to provide human milk until age 2 and beyond

Woman breastfeeding baby on couch

How and what you feed your baby is probably one of the most basic — and yet deeply personal — decisions you’ll face when you become a parent.

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You’ll hear things like “breast is best.” As in, breastfeeding (chestfeeding) is the absolute best way to nourish your baby.

And then you'll hear the retort, “fed is best.” Meaning breast milk (human milk) and formula are both fine. As long as your baby is getting nutrients in their belly, all is well.

Then come the opinions on how long you should breastfeed. (You're still breastfeeding? You gave up on nursing already? You fed your baby formula?)

It can feel like there’s no right way to do it. And there’s some truth to that.

Because what works for one family may not be feasible for another. But that’s OK.

Breast milk can provide certain benefits that formula can’t mimic. But breastfeeding, especially for long periods of time, might not work for everyone. Or you may have been given the impression that you’ve continued providing human milk long after others think you “should.”

No one should feel guilt, shame or otherwise crummy about how they feed their baby. Let’s face it, mom guilt is tough enough as it is.

So, we talked with board-certified breastfeeding medicine physician Heidi Szugye, DO, about breastfeeding recommendations.

How long to breastfeed

Science shows that if you can give your baby human milk (either your own or a donor’s), it has its benefits. And the longer, the better, experts recommend.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the World Health Organization (WHO) share these recommendations for breastfeeding duration:

  • Newborn to 6 months: Exclusive human milk.
  • 6 months to 12 months: Mostly human milk while introducing solid foods.
  • 12 months to 24 months (and beyond): Mostly solid foods with some human milk, as mutually desired by parent and child.

Previous recommendations called for providing breast milk until age 1. But these newer guidelines (implemented in 2022) are based on the understanding that human milk has benefits that continue long after baby’s first birthday. And they help to remove stigmas associated with people who choose to extend breastfeeding into toddlerhood.

“These recommendations are a call to action for everyone, and that includes hospitals, pediatricians and all physicians that are taking care of families,” Dr. Szugye states. “We want to make sure our practices and policies are set up to support people who choose to breastfeed beyond the first year of their child’s life.”

Think of the guidelines as the best-case scenario. If it works for you, your family, your child, your body and your life to breastfeed for two years or longer, you’re doing a great thing. And there’s no reason to stop until you and your child are ready.

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If it doesn’t work for you, that’s OK, too. Your worth as a parent and your love for your child can’t be measured in ounces of milk.

Benefits of extended breastfeeding

The recommendations are based on research showing that human milk has some big benefits. And those perks continue for as long as you continue to supply it.

“Breastfeeding offers tremendous benefits — from custom-made nutrition and increased immunity to protecting you against some forms of cancer. And those benefits don’t go away as your baby ages,” Dr. Szugye shares. “We have more and more data supporting that there are benefits to breastfeeding for more than one year when possible.”

Breastfeeding can offer both you and your baby some big benefits:

Benefits for lactating parents
Lower risk of developing conditions like Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, breast cancer and ovarian cancer.
Benefits for baby
Decreased risk for ear infections, respiratory infections, gastrointestinal illnesses, SIDS, leukemia, diabetes, obesity, asthma and eczema.

“There are a lot of immunologic factors and components to human milk,” Dr. Szugye says. “One big advantage to human milk is that you pass antibodies to the baby. So, if you’re exposed to a respiratory illness or GI illness, those antibodies are passed on to the baby and then that makes them less likely to get sick. And if they do get sick, it’s less severe. It’s almost like a built-in immunity.”

Keeping up milk supply for the long haul

Some people can make enough milk to breastfeed for as long as they and their babies choose. But some don’t. At least not without taking some steps to keep it up.

If you suspect your supply is dwindling as your child gets older, there are ways to help promote more milk production if you want.

“Many people notice their supply drop and mistakenly assume it won’t return,” Dr. Szugye notes. “But if you want to continue to breastfeed, there are options that could help.”

If a supply boost is in order, you can try:

  • Nursing more often — Add sessions as long as your child will nurse. If you’re away from them during the day, try early evenings, mornings or weekends.
  • Pumping strategies — An extra session or several short “power pumping” sessions (think five to 10 minutes throughout the day) for several days in a row can trigger your body to make more milk.
  • Breast massage and compressionEasy-to-learn techniques can improve drainage when nursing or pumping.
  • Take care of yourself — Reduce stress, rest when possible, hydrate and eat a balanced diet with an extra 500 calories a day to support breastfeeding.

Not an ‘all-or-nothing’

If two or more years of breastfeeding seems daunting, remember that you have options.

For starters, giving your child human milk doesn’t always mean latching them to your breast and nursing. That’s just one way to do it. Pumping milk and putting it in a bottle, cup or spoon are also options.

And you may find that a donor bank could be a route to explore if you don’t lactate or if you have concerns about a low milk supply. Donor milk is pasteurized, screened for drugs, medications and infections, and tested for bacterial contamination before it’s stored and made available for purchase.

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“Reach out to your pediatrician or women’s healthcare provider if you’re interested in obtaining donor milk. You may need a prescription from a healthcare provider,” Dr. Szugye suggests.

Remember, too, that any amount of human milk can be a benefit. If keeping up with your baby’s breastfeeding demands becomes too high a burden, there are alternatives.

Some parents may find that supplementing with formula (or other foods and milk after baby turns 1) can help give your child some human milk, while keeping up with their nutritional needs — and not burning yourself out in the process.

“It’s not an all-or-nothing thing,” Dr. Szugye reassures. “Any amount of human milk you can give is a benefit. If it doesn’t work for you to constantly supply human milk, that’s OK. We’re all just doing our best.”

If breastfeeding is going well for both you and your child, there’s no reason to give it up until you’re both ready to.

Feeding a baby is tough work, no matter how you do it. And chances are, you’re doing a fantastic job.

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Breastfeeding

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