If you’re not committed to breastfeeding for a long time, maybe you want to know breastfeeding benefits by age. Even though babies would ideally be breastfed exclusively for 6 months and then breastfed alongside solid foods as long as baby would like, that often doesn’t happen.
There are many reasons why a mom may not breastfeed for an extended period of time- lack of support, difficulty with latching or supply, past traumas that make breastfeeding upsetting – the list is long.
And it’s important to recognize the benefits of breastfeeding, even if it’s for a shorter time. I’ve asked Kealy from Little Bear Care, a Registered Nurse and Certified Lactation Counselor, to share her experience and the benefits of breastfeeding by month.
Kealy’s breastfeeding story
I love talking about the benefits of breastfeeding and the positive outcomes from any amount of breast milk.
That’s partly because of my difficulty breastfeeding my first baby. I thought breastfeeding would be easy… It’s natural, so it has to be easy, right?
Well, I was wrong.
We struggled from day one. We dealt with tongue and lip ties, jaundice, difficulty latching, nipple confusion, pumping, supplementing, oversupply, clogged ducts, and the list goes on.
I was determined though, and it took us a full 3 months to breastfeed successfully. But I didn’t have a lot of support, and most of the women close to me didn’t breastfeed very long. So I decided to stop breastfeeding around 5 months.
Afterwards, my daughter had a severe allergic reaction that made me regret quitting. I relactated. It wasn’t easy, but by 6 months I was able to give my daughter expressed milk. She never did latch again, so I exclusively pumped until she was a year old.
I am so proud of my breastfeeding journey.
I’ve experienced a whole range of breastfeeding difficulties and overcome a lot.
That’s why I’m such a supporter of moms… where they are.
How long does the average woman breastfeed?
According to the CDC, more than 80% of women in the US start breastfeeding! That’s fantastic, because any amount of breast milk is good for a baby.
Unfortunately, that number drops significantly to less than 60% breastfeeding at all until 6 months (only 25% are breastfeeding exclusively at this age). It drops to 36% of babies nursing at 1 year.
Breastfeeding comes easily to some new moms, and not as easily to others. While a mom is in the hospital, she has access to breastfeeding help and support. Sometimes it can be hard to find help after going home.
Additionally, it’s difficult to continue breastfeeding while working, especially when pumping isn’t supported. Many moms find it hard to breastfeed in public, creating another barrier.
But the good news is that those numbers have been increasing! Breastfeeding is starting to become more accepted and supported. Moms really benefit from help and support throughout their breastfeeding journey.
To learn about the benefits of breastfeeding by age, keep reading.
Each breastfeeding journey is unique but breastfeeding is always beneficial for baby
No one breastfeeding journey is the same as another, so to answer the question about how long you should breastfeed, there isn’t a concrete answer.
Breastfeeding is a unique experience for each mommy and baby.
Formula sometimes is a necessity, and sometimes a choice. That’s okay, and up to each mama to make that decision.
Experts like the American Academy of Pediatrics and the World Health Organization recommend breastfeeding exclusively for the first 6 months of a baby’s life, and continuing to breastfeed until 1 year while introducing solid foods.
No matter how long you decide to breastfeed, breast milk is SO beneficial for your baby that even one drop gives nutritional advantages.
Breastfeeding for one day
Before you even give birth, your body starts to get ready to breastfeed. The first breast milk that your body produces for your newborn doesn’t look like milk at all. It’s called colostrum and it’s a yellow, thick liquid.
RELATED: Newborn breastfeeding – 12 tips
Colostrum is amazing stuff. It’s packed full of nutrients, and it helps your baby prepare their digestive system for food.
Colostrum works as a laxative, getting things moving. Your baby will pass their first stool, called meconium, with the help of colostrum. Meconium is sticky, black, and difficult to pass, so giving your baby colostrum helps.
Colostrum has the perfect balance of nutrients for your baby, even though it comes in a small volume. Your baby’s stomach is very small right after birth; colostrum is nutritionally dense, so they don’t need a lot of it to be satisfied.
Here are just some of the things colostrum contains (the full list of beneficial components is over 200!):
- Antibodies: perhaps the most beneficial part of colostrum is the immunity it gives your baby.
- Protein: colostrum contains higher amounts of protein than mature milk – so your baby doesn’t need as much volume.
- Vitamins and minerals: these are also higher in colostrum than in mature milk.
- Growth factors: growth factors contained in colostrum help your baby develop a healthy digestive tract.
Even if all you give your baby is colostrum, they are getting a huge benefit!
Benefits of breastfeeding by month
Any amount of breastfeeding is beneficial for your baby. This study found that breastfeeding reduced risk of ear infections, stomach infections, respiratory infections, eczema, asthma, diabetes, SIDS, and certain cancers in babies!
The benefits of breastfeeding are numerous, and there are different benefits for each stage of the breastfeeding journey! You and your baby will receive different benefits depending on how long you decide to breastfeed.
Breastfeeding for 1 month
The first month is often the hardest for breastfeeding. Baby is getting used to everything in the world around them, including eating!
Typically a baby breastfeeds 10 – 12 times per day. Some breastfeed more often than others, especially if they’re breastfed on demand and not on a schedule.
RELATED: How to know if my breastfed baby is eating enough
The first month of a baby’s life is when they’re most susceptible to sickness and infections, and breastfeeding offers a baby sickness-fighting immunity.
Breastfed babies tend to be hospitalized at lower rates and have fewer digestive problems than those not breastfed.
Breastfeeding also promotes mommy and baby bonding because breastfeeding releases feel-good hormones! Between sleepless nights, postpartum blues, and the newborn phase in general; feel-good hormones like oxytocin are beneficial. Often if a mom sticks to breastfeeding for a month, things will get easier and she’ll decide to breastfeed longer.
Breastfeeding for 4 months
After 4 months of breastfeeding, a baby starts to have a better developed digestive system. If you breastfed for this long, congratulations! You’re doing great. If you need to switch, babies are better able to tolerate formula by now.
Breastfeeding for 4 months helps protect your baby from dangerous chest infections. And if your baby starts to develop an eye-infection, breast milk is often a good way to resolve it.
Breast milk contains hormones which help your baby regulate more to the world. Four months of giving your baby breast milk helps them with their hormone balance.
In fact, your breastmilk is different in the daytime than it is at night. So by exclusively breastfeeding through day and night, you’re helping establish your baby’s circadian rhythm. So a breastfed baby will likely sleep better at night… and you will too!
Breastfeeding for 6 months
Breastfeeding exclusively with no other supplements for 6 months is what most experts recommend.
One big reason for this is because your baby’s digestive system takes time to develop. By 6 months, their intestines are mature. Before six months, proteins can pass more easily through the digestive tract, which makes baby more susceptible to food allergies.
Note: While solid foods can be started around 6 months, a baby still needs either formula or breastmilk until they turn 1. Cow’s milk shouldn’t be started until after a baby’s first birthday because it isn’t as easily digested and can stress their kidneys.
In addition, breastfeeding for at least six months reduces your child’s risk for eczema later on in life.
Breastfeeding for at least 6 months also has benefits for mommy! Six months is the magic mark where a mother’s chance of future cancers significantly decreases. In addition, your lifetime risk of Type 2 Diabetes is decreased by breastfeeding at least 6 months.
Additionally, exclusively breastfeeding for 6 months is 98% effective at preventing pregnancy (assuming your cycle hasn’t returned and you feed at least every 3 hours during the day and every 4-6 hours at night).
Benefits of breastfeeding after 6 months
Even though the American Academy of Pediatrics suggest exclusive breastfeeding until six months, they (along with the CDC, the WHO, and many other groups) suggest continuing to breastfeed past 6 months, supplementing breastmilk with solids. In fact, for most children, breastmilk or formula continues to be the primary nutrition source for the first year.
Breastfeeding for 9 months
Breastfed babies tend to have a wider palate and willingness to try different foods, largely because they’ve been exposed to flavors through your breastmilk. In addition, you’re continuing to provide your child’s complete nutrition as they experiment with solid foods (or if they’re simply not interested in solids yet… no problem!)
RELATED: Is homemade baby food safer than store bought?
Plus, breastfeeding during this time of rapid development – new words, starting to stand, crawl, and maybe even walk – supports your baby’s rapidly growing brain and body.
Breastfeeding for 12 months
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that babies be breastfed for the at least the first 12 months of their life.
RELATED: Breastfeeding a 1 year old
*UPDATE* The AAP has updated their recommendations to match those of the World Health Organization. They now say to breastfeed for at least two years and then as long as mother and baby want.
That’s because there’s some amazing life-long protective factors associated with breastfeeding at least one year. You child’s lifelong risks of ovarian cancer, breast cancer, heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes are decreased through breastfeeding to age one.
Note: Babies generally don’t wean themselves before they’re 12 months old unless there’s an issue. If a baby refuses the breast before 12 months, it’s called a nursing strike and is only temporary. Nursing strikes are generally due to an ear infection or a stuffy nose that keeps them from nursing well. With some patience and help from a lactation consultant, you can get your little one to latch again after a strike.
Breastfeeding has plenty of benefits in the short term too. One of my favorite things is that it’s a great way to feed your baby and offer nutrition when they’re sick.
When your baby catches a cold or stomach bug, breastfeeding can come through in a major way.. Sometimes a sick baby doesn’t want to eat or drink anything else… so breastfeeding comforts them, provides electrolytes, and gives them hydration!
Breastfeeding 18 months and beyond
If babies were allowed to wean themselves naturally without any outside factors (like schedules or mom’s desire to wean), they would naturally stop between 2.5 and 7 years of age. The World Health Organization recommends breastfeeding at least two years and then as long as is mutually desirable for mom and baby. In many places, breastfeeding commonly continues well after the first birthday.
RELATED: Benefits of toddler breastfeeding
As your baby grows older, your milk changes to meet their needs. Your breast milk’s fat and energy content increase as your baby grows. That means it’s one of the best things they can continue to have for their nutrition!
Breastfeeding is unique in comforting a baby and helps prevent sickness. Antibodies are always found in breast milk. When you or your baby are exposed to a sickness, your breast milk makes specific antibodies to fight it.
That means you’ll have a sick baby less often… and they won’t be sick as long! It’s never much fun when your toddler has a cold.
Other benefits to breastfeeding into toddlerhood include your baby’s optimal mouth development. Breastfeeding works different muscles than bottle feeding and helps your baby develop their face, jaw and tongue. In fact, children who do extended breastfeeding are less likely to need braces.
And finally, breastfeeding is a great way for you and baby to bond, even when she’s older. There’s nothing as sweet as your baby cuddled up in your lap to nurse for a little while (even if she runs to the playground slide right afterwards).
When is breastfeeding most beneficial?
Some moms wonder when breastfeeding helps their babies the most. And honestly, there’s great benefits all along!
With that said, those first few days of breastfeeding are most important. Colostrum seals the gut and “seeds” it with good bacteria, protecting your child’s gut health for life.
But breastfeeding is so helpful even years later for so many reasons. Especially when my child is sick, I’m always so grateful to still be breastfeeding. It give me a great way to comfort them, hydrate them, and provide antibodies.
Conclusions on breastfeeding benefits by age
Breastfeeding offers so many benefits for your baby, and I encourage moms to breastfeed as long as they can.
With that said, if you’re wondering how long you need to breastfeed to get the benefits, the answer is this: Any amount of breastfeeding (no matter how short or long) is beneficial.
Not everyone can exclusively breastfeed. Not everyone can breastfeed for a year or longer. But if you can even give your baby even one feeding, that’s amazing for them.
And if you can’t… well, that doesn’t determine your worth as a mother.
There are moms that breastfeed exclusively, some that pump, some that supplement, and some that formula feed. No matter what choice you make, feeding your baby is the most important thing.
I hope this information gives moms the motivation they need to breastfeed, and breastfeed longer. It’s such an amazing thing to be able to do, and we mamas are the only ones that can do it for our little ones.
(Note from Samantha: If you want to learn all the benefits of breastfeeding past a year of age, click here.)
Kealy is a Registered Nurse, Certified Lactation Counselor, and most importantly, a mommy!
Her own breastfeeding struggles gave her a passion to help moms throughout their breastfeeding journey. She offers one-on-one lactation consultations, breastfeeding classes, and shares her knowledge to equip and empower moms. If you’re interested in talking with her or taking one of her breastfeeding classes, visit her website at http://www.littlebearcare.com.