It is a well-known concept that breast milk is the best mode of nutrition for a newborn child. It contains healthy nutrients such as sugars and proteins that are better absorbed by the baby. Additionally, it is a source of immunity and antibodies and promotes the growth of the baby.
Moreover, there are plenty of benefits of breastfeeding for the mother herself such as the loss of weight gained during pregnancy. and are also less likely to get breast and ovarian cancer and diabetes later in life.
Breastfeeding can help you form a strong bond with your newborn but at one point you might start to wonder, how long you should continue it.
Understanding long term breastfeeding
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommendations, infants should be exclusively breastfed for the first 6 months of their life. During this time, they should not be given any other solid or liquid foods. After 6 months, weaning should be started. Currently, only 1 out of 3 infants are exclusively breastfed for the first 6 months. The WHO aims to increase the exclusive breastfeeding rate in 0-6 month infants to 50% by the year 2025.
Long-term breastfeeding or extended breastfeeding refers to infants being breastfed for more than one year of age. Some mothers breastfeed their children until they are 3 or 4 years old, which may provide further benefits.
Benefits of breastfeeding
Although breastfeeding older children is a safe and healthy option for both the mother and the baby, there are likely to be social and societal barriers to continued breastfeeding. However, breastfeeding has many health benefits which we will discuss here in detail.
Benefits for infants
- Safety: It is the safest and most natural option for the baby. There are no issues of cleaning, or sterilising the bottles as it happens in the case of formula milk. Formula feeds require warm water which might be a source of infections if not prepared properly. Breast milk eliminates all these issues
- No cost: Formula milk comes in various types and they come at a financial cost. The cost of bottles and sterilising equipment make formula feeding an expensive thing. Breastfeeding doesn't require any expensive equipment
- Skin-to-skin contact: Breastfeeding provides skin-to-skin contact between the infant and mother which relaxes the child and gives a sense of security
- Colostrum: Colostrum is sometimes referred to as 'liquid gold' due to its highly nutritive properties. It is the first breast milk produced 2-3 days post childbirth. It is thick and yellowish in colour. It is nutritious as it is filled with White Blood Cells (WBCs) which help in the production of antibodies. These antibodies help to strengthen the immune system. It is easily digestible so it is the perfect feed for newborns. The laxative properties of colostrum are apparent in the first poop out of the body, thus reducing the chances of neonatal jaundice (jaundice in newborns)
- Decrease the chances of SIDS: Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) also known as 'cot death' is a tragic death that happens unexpectedly in infants. Premature or low birth weight babies are at high risk of SIDS. Most of the SIDS-related deaths happen within the first 6 months. Breastfeeding is a big step towards prevention of SIDS1
- Higher IQ: Breastfeeding increases the IQ of babies. As per studies, breastfed babies tend to be smart and become successful in life2
- Obesity: Breastfed babies are less likely to become obese later in life. Breast milk promotes healthy weight gain as its nutrient composition changes as the child grows3
- Immunity: Studies have shown that breastfed babies have high immunity to infections. There are few cases of ear, stomach or any other infections, asthma, eczema, or obesity in breastfed babies. Even if they get infected, it is not severe. This immunity lasts longer even after the babies grow up. A premature baby has less chance of developing necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC) if they are breastfed
Benefits for mothers
- Weight loss: Women who breastfeed are likely to lose their pregnancy weight faster than those who don't. The extra fat stored in the body is used in the production of breast milk. So, breastfeeding women get back in shape in less time. It reduces the chances of obesity in later life
- Menstrual cycle: Mothers who exclusively breastfeed typically have a long break from menstrual cycle/periods
- Fertility: Exclusive breastfeeding reduces the chances of pregnancy. However, it is not a sure method of contraception, so please consult your gynaecologist for family planning measures
- Quick recovery: Women who breastfeed produce a hormone called oxytocin which helps in quick recovery. This hormone contracts the uterus and helps it return to pre-pregnancy size. It also reduces vaginal bleeding post-delivery to some extent
- Emotional bond: Breastfeeding bonds the mother and the infant emotionally. The mother learns the signs of hunger and satisfaction better
- Reduced risk of developing cancer: Breastfeeding reduces the chances of several ailments such as breast cancer, ovarian cancer, cardiovascular disease, thyroid cancer and endometrial cancer4
- Postpartum depression (PPD): Postpartum depression or postnatal depression is the depression after giving birth. Life changes a lot after having a child. Sleepless nights, continuous caring for the baby and hormones can all play a role in this. Breastfeeding can lower the risk of PPD to some extent5
- Osteoporosis: Osteoporosis can be referred to as having weak bones which might increase the chances of fracture. It happens when we lose more bone than our body makes, so bone density reduces. Breastfeeding reduces the chances of developing osteoporosis later in life by keeping bone density high
What's the longest you can breastfeed your child?
Exclusive breastfeeding for 0-6 months is recommended. After the child starts eating solids, breastfeeding till 2 years is considered ideal.
Does breastfeeding help you lose weight?
Yes, breastfeeding mothers lose weight quickly compared to mothers who don't.
Are babies breastfed smarter?
Yes. According to studies, breastfed babies are smart and have higher IQs compared to formula-fed babies2
In summary, breastfeeding benefits both the child and the mother. Children benefit through enhanced immune responses and a reduced risk of infantile diseases. Additionally, children who are breastfed are typically healthier in later life. Mothers can benefit emotionally, and financially, and have better health outcomes than mothers that do not breastfeed.
If you are having difficulties in breastfeeding, it is advised that you speak to a healthcare professional who will be able to give you bespoke advice on breastfeeding.
- Alm B, Wennergren G, Möllborg P, Lagercrantz H. Breastfeeding and dummy use have a protective effect on sudden infant death syndrome. Acta Paediatrica. 2016 Jan;105(1):31-8.
- Horta BL, Loret de Mola C, Victora CG. Breastfeeding and intelligence: a systematic review and meta‐analysis. Acta paediatrica. 2015 Dec;104:14-9.
- Rito AI, Buoncristiano M, Spinelli A, Salanave B, Kunešová M, Hejgaard T, García Solano M, Fijałkowska A, Sturua L, Hyska J, Kelleher C. Association between characteristics at birth, breastfeeding and obesity in 22 countries: The WHO European Childhood Obesity Surveillance Initiative–COSI 2015/2017. Obesity facts. 2019 Apr 26;12(2):226-43.
- Qiu R, Zhong Y, Hu M, Wu B. Breastfeeding and reduced risk of breast cancer: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Computational and Mathematical Methods in Medicine. 2022 Jan 28;2022.
- Xia M, Luo J, Wang J, Liang Y. Association between breastfeeding and postpartum depression: a meta-analysis. Journal of Affective Disorders. 2022 Jul 1;308:512-9.