The decision about how long to breastfeed your child is a very personal one. Each mom will have feelings about what’s best for herself and her child — and the decision about when to stop breastfeeding may vary considerably from one child to another.
Sometimes you might know exactly how long you want to breastfeed and feel clear about when to stop — and that’s awesome. But often the decision doesn’t feel that simple or obvious.
You may have many factors to weigh, including your own feelings, the needs and feelings of your child, and the opinions of others (which sometimes aren’t exactly welcomed!).
Whatever you do, know that the decision about how long to breastfeed is ultimately yours to make. Your body, your child — your choice.
While there’s no one right decision here, however long you breastfeed is beneficial to both you and your baby. There’s no age limit on these benefits and no harm in breastfeeding for 1 year or even longer.
What the major health organizations say
All major health organizations recommend breastfeeding for at least 1 year, with about 6 months of exclusive breastfeeding, followed by breastfeeding combined with the introduction of solid foods. After that, the guidance varies in terms of how long to continue breastfeeding.
For example, both the Academy of American Pediatrics (APA) and
WHO recommends 6 months of exclusive breastfeeding and then breastfeeding for “up to 2 years and beyond.” Meanwhile, the AAFP notes that mom and baby health is optimal “when breastfeeding continues for at least 2 years.”
Breastmilk’s nutritional value after 1 year
Contrary to what you might have heard, breastmilk doesn’t “turn to water” or lose its nutritional value at a certain date.
For example, a study published in
What’s more, breastmilk continues to contain antibodies that boost your child’s immune system for the entire duration of breastfeeding.
What is the average weaning age?
Given that weaning is a process, it’s hard to pinpoint an average.
If you end up being one of the mamas who chooses to nurse beyond the toddler years, know that breastfeeding an older child is normal. As the AAFP notes, according to anthropological data, the natural age of self-weaning (meaning weaning determined strictly by the child) is about 2.5–7 years old.
Obviously, not everyone wants to nurse that long, but it’s nice to know it’s an option that’s normal and actually pretty common all over the world.
Most experts agree that weaning starts as soon as your child begins consuming solid foods, even if full weaning from the breast doesn’t happen for several more months or years. In general, it’s best if you take weaning gradually and gently. This gives both your body and baby time to adjust.
If you wean within the first 6–12 months, you’ll need to supplement your reduction of breastmilk with formula. Breastmilk or formula is considered to be a baby’s primary food for the first year of life, and solid foods shouldn’t be fully substituted for breastmilk or formula until your baby reaches 1 year.
Weaning is going to look a little different, depending on your baby’s age and what life circumstances you may be facing. Let’s take a look at different weaning scenarios and what you should keep in mind in each instance.
Weaning before 6 months
If your baby is under 6 months, you’ll be substituting breastfeeding sessions with formula. If your baby hasn’t taken a bottle before, you will want to make sure they get used to that. It may be helpful to begin by having another adult feed them the bottle at first.
Then slowly increase the number of bottles you feed your baby as you slowly decrease their time at the breast. Do this gradually, if possible, so you can see how well your baby digests the formula (you can ask your doctor for recommendations if the formula seems to upset your baby’s stomach) and so that you don’t get too engorged along the way.
To begin, replace a single feeding with a bottle, wait at least a few days, then add another bottle feeding into the schedule. You can always adjust the pace as needed to ensure that your baby is fed and adjusting to the changes. Over the course of a few weeks or months, you can transition into using only bottle feeding.
Weaning after 6 months
After 6 months, you may be able to substitute a few nursing sessions with solid foods. However, keep in mind that babies don’t usually eat a large variety of solid foods, so it isn’t possible to feed your baby a balanced diet through solid foods alone.
You’ll have to substitute some formula in as you decrease your breastfeeding sessions. You can also add the formula to your baby’s solid foods for fun and to give them a nutritional boost.
Just remember that breastmilk or formula is still their primary source of calories through the first year, so ensure that you’re offering enough formula each day using a cup or bottle.
Weaning after 1 year
If your baby is eating a large variety of foods and has started drinking water and milk, you may be able to decrease your baby’s breastfeeding without having to substitute in formula. You can talk to your doctor about this.
Either way, many babies will be even more aware of the emotional attachments they have to breastfeeding, so weaning at this age may involve offering your baby other comforts as you decrease their time at the breast. Distractions can also be helpful at this age.
Weaning abruptly isn’t usually recommended, as it increases your chances of engorgement and may increase your chance of breast infections. It also may be tougher emotionally on your baby — and on you.
However, in certain circumstances, weaning suddenly may be necessary. Examples include being called for military duty or needing to start a medication or health procedure that’s not compatible with breastfeeding.
In these cases you want to keep your child’s age in mind and substitute with appropriate foods or formula. For your comfort, you may want to try cold cabbage leaves for engorgement or cold compresses to stop swelling. You also may need to express just enough milk to decrease the engorgement for a few days (don’t express too much or you’ll continue producing an excess).
You’ll also want to give both yourself and your child some extra TLC. Sudden weaning can be very difficult emotionally — not to mention the sudden hormone shifts you’ll experience.
Self-weaning is basically just what it sounds like. You allow your child to wean on their own, in their own time. All children are a little bit different in terms of when they give up nursing. Some seem to give it up easily or suddenly, preferring to play or cuddle rather than nurse. Others seem more emotionally attached to nursing and take longer to wean.
There is no real “normal” here, as every child is different. You should also know that self-weaning isn’t all or nothing. You can allow your child to wean on their own and still have your own boundaries about how frequently or long you want to nurse. As your child gets older, weaning may be more of a negotiation based on a mutual relationship.
What if you get pregnant again while breastfeeding?
If you get pregnant while nursing, you have two options. You can wean your child, or continue nursing.
As the AAFP describes it, nursing during pregnancy isn’t harmful to your pregnancy. “If the pregnancy is normal and the mother is healthy, breastfeeding during pregnancy is the woman’s personal decision,” AAFP explains. Many women happily nurse throughout their pregnancy and continue to tandem nurse both kids after birth.
Understandably, many women decide to wean during pregnancy, as the idea of nursing more than one child sounds difficult or exhausting. If you decide to wean, make sure to do it gently. If your child is under 1 year, ensure that their nutritional needs are met.
What if your baby is eating three meals a day?
Breastfeeding is so much more than nutrition, especially as your baby gets older. Even if your baby is eating a ton, they may be coming to you for snacks, drinks — and of course — comfort.
Moms of older babies and toddlers usually find that their children eat plenty during the day, but nurse at nap time, bedtime, or in the morning. Many will nurse when they need reassurance or downtime during their day.
Should you stop breastfeeding when your baby gets teeth?
Teeth are not a reason to wean! When a child breastfeeds, they aren’t using their gums or teeth at all, so you shouldn’t be concerned about biting.
The main players during nursing are the lips and tongue, so your baby’s teeth will not touch your breast or nipple during nursing (unless they clamp down, which is a different story).
How old is too old to breastfeed?
Again, there’s no upper limit here. Yes, you’re going to get advice and opinions from everyone you meet. But all major health organizations agree that there’s no breastfeeding age that’s harmful to children. As the AAP explains, there’s “no evidence of psychologic or developmental harm from breastfeeding into the third year of life or longer.”
When to stop breastfeeding is a deeply personal decision, one that mothers should be able to make on their own.
Unfortunately, you may feel pressure from outside sources — your friends, family, doctor, or even your partner —to make a particular decision that doesn’t quite feel right to you. Do your best to trust your instincts here. Usually your “mother gut” knows what’s best for you and your child.
Ultimately, whatever decision you make, you and your child will be fine. Whether you breastfeed for 1 month, 1 year, or even more, you can be assured that each drop of milk you fed your child did a world of good — and that you’re a wonderful parent.