There’s no disputing the benefits of breast milk for babies. The natural food source reduces the risk of asthma, obesity, sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), gastrointestinal problems, ear infections, and pneumonia, according to the CDC. Breastfeeding can also lower a mother’s chance of developing breast and ovarian cancers, high blood pressure, and type 2 diabetes.
So it's not surprising that nearly 84 percent of moms breastfeed their newborns after birth, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). But despite the countless benefits for Mom and Baby, only 36 percent continue nursing for the recommended time.
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“Both the World Health Organization (WHO) and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommend that babies are exclusively breastfed for the first six months of life,” says Molly Petersen, certified lactation counselor at Lansinoh. “Then mothers should continue breastfeeding with complementary foods until one year—or as long as mutually desired." (Keep in mind, though, that some moms actually can't—or simply don't want to—breastfeed. Don't worry if this is the case; many studies show that formula-fed infants fare just fine.)
In other words, babies should be fed only breast milk or formula—and absolutely nothing else—for the first six months of life. These will provide all of the nutrition she needs for growth and development. After six months, you can start introducing solids into her diet while continuing regular nursing; you'll have to experiment to find a feeding schedule that works best. Keep breastfeeding until your baby turns one year old, if you can.
You can definitely nurse beyond the one year guideline; in fact, extended breastfeeding has plenty of benefits for brain development, the immune system, and mother-child bonding. But according to breastfeeding statistics compiled by the CDC from across America, only about 15 percent of mothers breastfeed at 18 months.
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Why Do Women Stop Breastfeeding?
Why do so many women stop before the timeframe recommended by the AAP and WHO? “In the early days, moms may stop because of pain” from issues like engorgement or sore nipples, says Petersen. “They might also feel like they aren’t producing enough breast milk.” Both of these issues stem from inadequate breastfeeding support and training in early motherhood.
As the baby ages, mothers might also stop breastfeeding because they’re simply too busy with other life commitments. “Trying to pump on a proper schedule and keeping your supply intact can be challenging,” says Petersen. Indeed, many women decide that formula-feeding is easier than pumping throughout the workday.
Tips for Breastfeeding Success
If you want to breastfeed for the recommended time frame, there are steps you can take to make everything go smoothly.
Get educated. Signing up for breastfeeding support groups or reading about nursing can help new moms prepare. “Early education and support with breastfeeding issues is key to helping moms and babies get a good start,” says Petersen. “This can help them avoid potential stumbling blocks and overcome them more confidently.”
Reach out to a lactation consultant for any concerns. It’s possible you’ll experience milk leakage, sore nipples, engorgement, and minimal milk production. To deal with any of these issues, “I would highly recommend working with an IBCLC (International Board Certified Lactation Consultant),” says Petersen. “Most hospitals have them on staff as part of their labor and delivery teams. There are also IBCLCs that work in private practice or as part of women’s health clinics who can help you if issues arise after you leave the hospital.”
Seek an online community. If you’re struggling, try finding a breastfeeding community online. “It can be incredibly comforting to talk to other moms who have been where you are and know that they came out the other side,” says Petersen.
Prioritize breastfeeding. It’s not easy to fit breastfeeding into your schedule, especially once you go back to work. But making time to pump will improve the health of both Mother and Baby. There’s absolutely no shame in pumping milk to feed your child, and many offices have lactation rooms dedicated to expressing milk. Indeed, the Affordable Care Act (part of the Fair Labor Standards Act) requires many employers to provide these safe spaces, as well as "reasonable" unpaid pumping breaks.
The Bottom Line
In order to reap the benefits of breastfeeding, experts recommend doing it as long as you can. Both the AAP and WHO recommend nursing for at least one year. However, formula is also a great alternative if you can't breastfeed, or if you simply don't want to.