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How long should you breastfeed? A lactation consultant weighs in

The secret to breastfeeding is doing what works best for both mom and baby.
/ Source: TODAY

Registered nurse and lactation consultant Hillary Sadler gets asked at least once per week, "How long should you breastfeed?"

How long mothers should breastfeed their babies is a longstanding subject of debate in the parenting community.

Sadler told TODAY Parents that the connotation of “should” tends to make women feel like they have to breastfeed their baby and that they don’t have an option. 

"As a lactation consultant and registered nurse I know it’s important to consider the mother and child, not just the child," Sadler told TODAY. 

Related: ‘There’s so much pressure’: Moms react to new guidelines that support breastfeeding toddlers

How long should you breastfeed?

According to Sadler, how long a mother breastfeeds is not a one-size-fits-all approach.

"I like to answer this question in this way: You 'should' breastfeed as long as it’s mutually beneficial for you and your baby," she said. "For some mothers, that may mean they don’t breastfeed at all. For others, that might look like breastfeeding beyond two years."

Breastfeeding benefits

Sadler, the founder of Baby Settler, a sleep and lactation education brand, explained there are some evidence-based benefits for breastfeeding mothers, including:

  • a reduced risk of excessive postpartum blood loss;
  • a delay in the return of a menstrual cycle (although this isn’t always the case),
  • and a reduction of the mother's risk of developing breast, ovarian and endometrial cancer. 

Some benefits for the baby include:

  • optimal growth, development and function for the newborn’s gastrointestinal system;
  • prevention of illness (gastroenteritis, diarrhea and respiratory diseases, to name a few),
  • and a decreased risk for sudden unexpected infant death (SIUD).

 "Sometimes mothers feel pressured to breastfeed their baby for 'benefits' that aren’t really supported by evidence," Sadler said. "It’s important to educate yourself with evidence-based information so you can make the best decision for you and your baby."

Sadler said when new mothers ask the question, she shares the above evidence-based information, but also takes the woman's individual situation into account.

"We also consider her mental health, her family’s needs (both social and economical), and I support her to make the best decision for herself and her baby," Sadler said. "Often, this includes a 'pro' and 'con' list and the mindset to take it 'day by day.'"

Are there benefits to breastfeeding longer?

 Sadler says yes.

"There are medical benefits for the mother that are evidence-based (associations) that support breastfeeding for a longer duration," she said. "There is an association between a longer duration of breastfeeding and lower rates of breast cancer, epithelial ovarian cancer, hypertension and Type 2 diabetes, to name a few."

For the baby, Sadler explained there is moderate evidence that extended breastfeeding helps reduce the risk of a child developing Type 1 diabetes, irritable bowel disease and wheezing. 

Are there detriments to breastfeeding longer?

Yes, there are times when breastfeeding for a longer duration might have a negative effect on the mother and/or the baby. 

"When the mother’s mental health is being affected, it’s time to consider weaning," Sadler said. "Not only is breastfeeding a 'full-time job,' it’s a roller coaster of emotions and hormones, and sometimes mothers become overwhelmed and the continuation of breastfeeding might negatively affect the mother-child relationship." 

Related story: Desperate parents beg breast milk banks for help amid baby formula shortage

Is there a CDC recommended timeline for how long to breastfeed?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention follows the recommendation of the American Academy of Pediatrics, which is to exclusively breastfeed for about the first six months of a baby’s life.

"There are many evidence-based studies that suggest exclusive breast milk consumption during the first six months of life is beneficial in many ways," Sadler said. "Although the CDC and American Academy of Pediatrics make timed recommendations for how long a mother should breastfeed, it’s important to consider your needs and desires."

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