Many women feel that breastfeeding helped them to develop a special bond and closeness with their baby and as such taking the decision to stop can be a very emotional one.
While there are guidelines that suggest how long you should breastfeed your baby for, deciding how long to continue with this feeding method is a highly personal decision that only you can make on the basis of what you believe is right and what works for you.
What do the experts say?
The WHO (World Health Organisation) currently recommend that women breastfeed their infants exclusively for 6 months and then continue to supplement their baby's diet with breast milk until at least two years of age. As this recommendation is based on a wealth of scientific research it is also the advice advocated by many UK doctors.
Research has shown that breast milk is able to meet all of your baby's nutritional needs for the first 6 months of life, boosting their immunity and protecting them against infections and allergies too. When solids are introduced at around 6 months (as are the current recommendations) breast milk continues to be a valuable source of complimentary nutrition for your baby. This is so much so that it is generally accepted by the medical profession that the longer you breastfeed for, the greater the benefit to both your own and your baby's health.
What do other people do?
Rather surprisingly the worldwide average for weaning from the breast is 4.2 years old according to the WHO. While in the Western world many people have adverse opinions about continuing to breastfeed your baby until they're a toddler, the NCT suggest that over 70,000 babies a year continue to feed on breastmilk beyond 12 months of age.
Factors that may affect your decision:
Deciding to stop breastfeeding
- How you feel - This is ultimately the most important factor in deciding how long to continue breastfeeding. You should continue to breastfeed your baby for as long as it feels like the right choice for you both irrespective of other's opinions. Whether this means continuing breastfeeding for longer than your peers, or stopping before you had originally planned, it's important to make the decision based on what you feel happy with.
- How your partner feels - You may find that your partner is really supportive of breastfeeding and encourages you to continue for as long as you feel you need to. However, others may not be so supportive and may have strong feelings about how long you should breastfeed for. Whether they encourage you to stop before you are ready (they may feel excluded from the close bond breastfeeding fosters between Mother and child, feel it's impacting your physical relationship as a couple or something else) or believe that you should continue even when you are ready to stop, it's really important that you discuss your choices with your partner and come to a decision that is right for you all.
- Pressure from others - Breastfeeding is something that a lot of people have a lot of opinions on, not least because of its coverage in the media. You'll find that some people strongly advocate breastfeeding for as long as possible while others believe that infants that aren't 'babies' any more shouldn't be fed this way. Hard as it may be it's important that you ignore these prejudices and make your decision as to how long to continue breastfeeding on what you believe is best for you and your baby.
- Practicalities - Breastfeeding can be quite a tie and sometimes because of other things going on in your life continuing just isn't an option. Many women feel this way on returning to work and stop breastfeeding as a result. Others use a combination of expressing and mixed feeding and make this work for them.
- Health - Although most experts say that breastfeeding should be an enjoyable experience, it isn't for everyone and the discomfort that some women feel can be just too much. If you are struggling with breastfeeding it is always a good idea to seek advice from your health visitor as they will be able to offer the advice and support you need. Certain medical conditions may also mean that you are unable to breastfeed.
- Another pregnancy - While it is possible to continue breastfeeding during pregnancy, many healthcare professionals will advise you to stop because of the huge nutritional demands both your growing babies place on your body. If you do decide to continue it's vital that you eat a nutrient rich diet that provides you all with the vitamins, minerals and calories you need to thrive.
- When you decide that the time is right to stop breastfeeding it's a good idea to talk to your healthcare provider about your plans as they will be able to provide you with the advice and support you need to make this transition.
Make the change gradually
- It's usually best to make the change from breast to formula gradually as this will give both you and your baby time to adapt (going 'cold turkey' can leave you with sore, swollen breasts and can cause extra upset for baby). To start with, try replacing one breastmilk feed a day with formula milk, increasing the formula : breastmilk feed ratio until you have made the switch completely. If your baby is over a year old when you stop breastfeeding you can offer full fat cow's milk instead.
Don't feel guilty
- Many women find that they feel guilty when they stop breastfeeding, especially if they didn't continue with it for as long as they originally planned. It's really important to remember that you have no reason to feel this way as breastfeeding is only the best thing for baby if it's the right thing for Mum. You should feel proud that you have done something great for your baby even if you only manage to breastfeed for a few days.
How long do you feel it's best to breastfeed for? Why not share your opinions and questions with other parents on the AskBaby forums.