Whether to breastfeed, as well as how long to breastfeed, is entirely your choice. If you choose to breastfeed, at some point you’ll debate when you should stop. Should you nurse for three months? Six months? A year? Longer? Here’s the thing though: Before making your decision, there are several factors to consider, including your baby’s needs, and, most importantly, your needs. Here’s some additional info to consider while you’re making up your mind.
The World Health Organization and the American Academy of Pediatrics both recommend that moms breastfeed their babies for at least six months. The WHO goes on to say that, “Breastfeeding is an unequalled way of providing ideal food for the healthy growth and development of infants… A recent review of evidence has shown that, on a population basis, exclusive breastfeeding for 6 months is the optimal way of feeding infants.”
Additionally, both the WHO and AAP support moms who wish to breastfeed for 12 months and beyond (known as extended breastfeeding), if it works for both mother and child. Breastmilk offers many health benefits, including immunity against illnesses and chronic disease, as well as a boost in cognitive development.
According to a CDC “Breastfeeding Report Card” published in 2011, 75 percent of American moms were breastfeeding at birth, 44 percent were still nursing by the time their babies reached 6 months of age, and 15 percent continued to breastfeed past that point.
In the United States, there are many reasons why moms decide to stop breastfeeding. CDC data shows that American moms do not breastfeed as long as mothers in other countries for many reasons, from difficulty breastfeeding after returning to work (as well as pumping at the office) to not getting enough breastfeeding support.
In fact, there is little breastfeeding support for U.S. moms after they leave the hospital, unless they seek it out. Even then, lactation consultants are expensive and not typically covered by insurance. Furthermore, in America, maternity leave is notoriously shorter than most other developed countries in the world. And as board certified lactation consultant Laura Marie Gruber told USA Today, “Moms go back to work six to 12 weeks out of the hospital. Those are two critical times. At six weeks, moms establish their supply.”
On the other side of the equation, since so many mothers stop at or before the six-month mark, those who don’t are often criticized or judged by society. While research shows that children who breastfeed past two have fewer illnesses, extended breastfeeding is often stigmatized or considered “weird.”
But Joan Meek, MD, who is the AAP’s breastfeeding chair, says that despite the belief that extended nursers are overindulged or reliant on their parents, “Studies actually show that breast-feeding in general is associated with greater independence and psychological adjustment in children,” according to TODAY.
How long to breastfeed is a matter of personal preference. Only mother and child can determine how long to continue, but whatever you choose, try not to let others sway you from what feels right for your unique breastfeeding experience.