‘Breastfeeding’, an instrumental metaphor for how pure love feels like. It is the mother's first gift not only to the baby but to herself as well. But, how long should you breastfeed? Like you cannot measure how much and how deeply you can love, there is no fixed timeline for breastfeeding- you respond to your baby's love and give back with joy as much as they need. 

When you start breastfeeding, you generally focus on successfully making it through those marathons of nursing sessions rather than preparing a set timeline of how long to do it. But, after some struggle, you hit your stride. Your baby latches down, and you begin to enjoy your magical nursing journey. 

Initially, breastfeeding starts as a necessity to feed the baby with all the adequate nutrition to ensure proper development and growth during infancy and early childhood.1 But, for many, it eventually becomes second nature to sit and enjoy snuggling and feeding their little one.

As you get used to breastfeeding, you might start to ponder the idea of feeding breast milk beyond the first few months or even the first year. How long should you breastfeed, when to stop, when to wean off, and how much breastfeeding time is ideal for your baby to be healthy? You're probably full of such questions. But fret not! We've got all the answers here. Read on.

Why Is Breastfeeding Recommended?

'Breastfeeding saves lives.' Nourishing the child with breast milk within an hour of birth could prevent 20% of newborn deaths.2 Breast milk provides the ideal nutrition for the baby as it contains anti-infectious, anti-inflammatory, growth factors and prebiotics essential for their growth and development. 3

Mother's milk contains many bioactive agents required for optimal growth. It helps develop the baby's brain and immune system and reduces the possibility of late metabolic diseases like obesity, hypertension and type 2 diabetes4. It also boosts the baby's cognitive functioning, improves their metabolism and communication skills. It also helps in baby’s growth regulation and prevents them from many respiratory and gastrointestinal infections and severe allergies.5

Breast milk is a boon not only to the babies who are breastfed but also to the new mothers. It helps in lowering their risk of ovarian and breast cancer, combats postpartum depression, and eases the bonding difficulties with their babies.6

What Constitutes The First Drop Of Life- Breast Milk?

Human breast milk consists of 0.8-0.9% protein, 6.9-7.2% carbohydrate, 3-5% fat, 0.2% minerals, and up to 87% water. Apart from these, it contains many crucial vitamins and minerals that can easily be absorbed by the child, like calcium, magnesium, potassium, iron, sodium, phosphorus, and many others.7 

Following Is The Overview Of Breast Milk Composition:

1. Protein

The proteins of human breast milk are divided into the whey and casein complexes, with an array of specific proteins and peptides, as mentioned below.

  • Lactoferrin- It is crucial to inhibit the growth of various iron-dependent organisms, such as coliform (E.coli) and yeast to prevent infantile diarrhea in babies.8
  • Secretory IgA - Protects the infant from various bacteria like E. Coli and other viruses. Other immunoglobulins in breast milk, like IgM and IgG, prevent infection.8
  • Lysozyme - Protects the infant against Salmonella and E. Coli infection by growing anti-inflammatory, healthy intestinal flora.8
  • Probiotics - It promotes the growth of various Lactic Acid Bacteria like Lactobacillus,Staphylococci, Streptococci, and Bifidobacteria, beneficial to build immunity and protect the baby against harmful infection due to their antimicrobial and anti-allergic effects. 9

2. Lipids

They are the second most crucial macronutrients. Breast milk constitutes linoleic acid (LA) and α-linolenic acid (ALA), the precursors of long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) omega-6 (ω6) and omega-3 (ω3). Fats are the type of lipids found in breast milk which are a vital calorie source crucial for the proper absorption of fat-soluble vitamins as well as development of the baby's brain, retina, and nervous system. 10

Among the three omega-3 fatty acids found in breast milk, Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is critical to support baby’s vision, brain development, memory and immune system.11 It is not synthesized in the body and is essential for baby’s brain development. Thus, breast milk remains the only source of DHA intake for the baby.12  Therefore, a breastfeeding mother must get the DHA levels checked in the breast milk to know if she is providing the desired level for her baby’s development.

3. Vitamins

Vitamins like A, D, E, K, C, and B complex are crucial for the proper functioning and development of the baby.13

4. Carbohydrates

Lactose, the primary carbohydrate source in breast milk, helps overcome unhealthy gut bacteria to improve the baby's calcium, manganese, and magnesium absorption.15 It also fulfills approximately 40% calorie requirement.14

How Long Should You Breastfeed Your Child?

The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends exclusive breastfeeding for up to 6 months right from the first hour of birth and then continuing to breastfeed for up to 2 years and beyond.15 This is because it contains anti-inflammatory, anti-infectious, growth factors, bioactive factors, and prebiotics essential for proper growth and development of baby.16

Beyond first six months, you should complement breast milk with solid food and then replace it gradually to address the higher nutritional needs of your baby.17

Breastfeeding for 1-2 years or longer is a standard for infants as breastmilk doesn't turn to water as per a myth. On the contrary, while the concentration of zinc and calcium declined,there were no changes in lactose, fat, iron and potassium level. Thus, it retains its nutritional properties throughout the second year as well. 18 

Weaning time, i.e., the time to stop breastfeeding your baby, may vary from each mother to baby. How long should you breastfeed and when to stop breastfeeding? This entirely depends on you and your baby.

Last But Not The Least, Check If Your Baby Is Getting Enough Omega-3 DHA For Its Growth

It is essential to check the levels of the most crucial nutrients in your breast milk- Omega-3 DHA, as it critical for your baby's overall growth and development.19 DHA Omega- 3 is present in higher amounts in seafood and non-vegetarian diet and Indian lactating women who are majorly vegetarian fall short of this essential nutrient in their breast milk.20, 21Therefore, it is best to get your DHA Omega-3 levels checked till you breastfeed. One of the most convenient and effective ways of testing your Omega-3 DHA levels is Lifecell’s at-home testing kit - ‘OmegaScore-N’. It allows the most easy, non-invasive and reliable postnatal test for lactating mothers to monitor the Omega-3 DHA levels and know if their baby is getting the right nutrition. 

Checking the Omega-3 DHA is simple with Lifecell’s OmegaScore-N, you just need to order your kit online, collect a few drops of your breast milk and mail it to their certified labs with prepaid shipping. You will receive your physician-approved smart reports within a few days on your personalized dashboard and can also schedule a virtual consultation with the medical experts to get deep insights about your health. For more information on OmegaScore-N, call at 1800 266 5533.

To Stop Or Continue Breastfeeding? For How Long?- It’s Your Call To Make

Breastfeeding is crucial for your baby's well-being right after birth. Different people have different opinions on how long to breastfeed. Know that you and your doctor are the right people to answer the question ‘how long should you breastfeed? It’s an individual’s choice to enjoy the feeling of being a mama who likes to nurse beyond six months or even a year. Know that breastfeeding beyond toddlers' age is normal.

So to sum it up, if you're a lactating mother, then make an independent decision on how long to breastfeed your baby as nobody knows it better than the 'mother’s gut.'