Breastfeeding: What to Expect and How Long to Feed
Wondering how long you should breastfeed your baby? Learn what's typically recommended and what you can expect as you learn to breastfeed alongside your little one.
Breast milk is the highest quality nutrition you can provide your little one. It contains antibodies and other nutritional benefits that protect your baby from common ailments such as asthma, ear infections, and even childhood obesity. Studies show that antibodies from breastfeeding linger and continue to protect your baby even after weaning.
Breast milk also has a significant impact on your baby’s development. Research has shown that breastfed babies may even perform better on certain tests. It’s no wonder so many health experts refer to breast milk as “liquid gold.”
Given all these incredible benefits, you may be wondering how long you should breastfeed your baby. Whether this is your first baby or your third, here’s everything you need to know and what you can expect as you embark on your breastfeeding journey.
How Long to Breastfeed Your Baby
The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends babies be exclusively breastfed – meaning, they consume only breast milk and no other foods or liquids, including water, are provided – for at least six months. Once they are six months old, the WHO recommends introducing complementary foods while continuing to breastfeed for up to 2 years and beyond. There is no age limit for breastfeeding. According to the American Association of Pediatrics, "There is no evidence of psychological developmental harm from breastfeeding into the third year of life or longer."
After six months, your baby still reaps plenty of benefits from breastfeeding and breast milk. The composition of your milk changes to meet your little one’s evolving needs as they grow while providing important vitamins, nutrients, minerals, and immunities to help him or her develop into toddlerhood.
How Often to Breastfeed Your Newborn
In general, newborns eat every 2 to 3 hours, and each feeding may last between 10 and 20 minutes. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that you can expect to feed your newborn little one about 8-12 times in a 24-hour period. As they get older, they will become more efficient at feedings and will therefore nurse less frequently. After your baby is 6 months old, you can begin introducing complementary foods to provide him or her with a combination diet of breast milk and occasional solids.
In general, you should feed your baby on demand and whenever they’re hungry. Signs that baby is ready to nurse include moving their fist to their mouth, repeatedly opening and closing their mouth, turning their head side to side, and/or sucking on their hands. Crying and overall agitation are actually late hunger cues, so be sure to keep an eye on their early signs – Newborns love to nurse often!
Alternating breasts can help with various nursing issues. For example, if your little one continuously falls asleep while nursing, switching sides is a great way to gently wake baby up and continue feeding. By alternating breasts once your baby slows or stops their sucking, the faster flow of another let-down on your other side will likely keep him or her interested in feeding. Once sucking slows on that side, put your baby back onto the first breast and then continue alternating as needed.
Switching breasts also stimulates the let-down reflex, which helps replenish your milk supply. In the first days after delivery, your colostrum – or “early milk” – is enough to nourish your little one and fill their tiny stomach. Your mature milk will “come in” and be ready as your newborn grows and progressively needs more milk.
Finally, women experiencing breast engorgement or clogged milk ducts can also try alternating sides several times within a single nursing session as a way to alleviate these common breastfeeding challenges.
Give Yourself Time to Adjust
While breastfeeding can be uncomfortable at first, it’s important to remember that – though it is natural – it is also a learned behavior for both you and your newborn! Give yourself and your baby time to adjust, learn to position and latch effectively, and get into a rhythm. For most moms, breastfeeding becomes easier after the first few weeks and once you and your little one figure out the routine that works best for you both. Remember, as your baby develops, drinks more milk to fill their growing tummy, and nurses more efficiently, you won't be on call as often. Don’t forget to ask for support and help from a lactation consultant on your healthcare provider whenever you may need it, so you can continue your breastfeeding journey for as long as you choose.