There are numerous benefits to breastfeeding for babies and mothers, but how long do you need to breastfeed to experience these benefits? And is there a point when breastfeeding can become harmful?

Both the World Health Organization (WHO) and American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) suggest that mothers across the globe exclusively breastfeed infants for the first six months of life. This means no other food or drink besides breast milk for the first half year of a baby’s life. They also recommend that breastfeeding be continued for at least the first year, with additional foods being added starting at six months.

Breastfeeding for a year may not be possible for all women. Read on to learn how breastfeeding for shorter amounts of time, or how combining breastfeeding with formula, may still benefit baby.

There are numerous benefits to breastfeeding even if you decide to breastfeed for just a few days. Here are some of the highlights according to the age of your child.

First days

Experts recommend that babies are kept close to their mothers and begin breastfeeding as soon as the first hour after birth. The benefits at this time include close skin-to-skin contact for the baby and the stimulation of milk for the mother.

At first, baby receives a thick, yellow substance called colostrum. Colostrum is the first stage of breast milk and contains important nutrients and antibodies for the newborn. In the following days, the breast milk fully comes in to provide early nutrition, and may even help protect the baby from infection.

First month

The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) describes breast milk as baby’s first immunization. Breast milk provides protective antibodies through at least the first year of a baby’s life. These antibodies protect against:

Moms get the benefit of feel-good hormones, oxytocin and prolactin. Together, these hormones may produce feelings of joy or fulfillment.

Women who breastfeed may also bounce back from birth faster as nursing helps the uterus contract back to its normal size more quickly.

3 to 4 months

As babies enter the third month of life, breast milk continues to support the digestive system. It also provides some babies with protection against allergens found in other foods and supplements.

Continued breastfeeding may help mom burn an extra 400 to 500 calories per day, which can help you to maintain a healthy postpartum weight.

Breastfeeding may help with internal health for mom as well. Some research shows that nursing may lower the risk of type 2 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, and cardiovascular disease. More research is needed to fully understand the connection.

6 months

The benefits of breastfeeding continue even with the addition of table foods, which doctors recommend at 6 months of age. Breast milk can continue to provide energy and protein, as well as vitamin A, iron, and other key nutrients. Not only that, but breast milk continues to protect baby against disease and illness for as long as they consume it.

For mom, reaching this milestone may reduce the risk of breast cancer and other cancers, like ovarian, endometrial, and uterine cancers. In fact, according to a report released by the World Cancer Research Fund and the American Institute for Cancer Research in 2017, for every five months of breastfeeding, a woman may reduce risk of breast cancer by 2 percent.

Exclusive breastfeeding may also provide up to 98 percent effective contraception in the first six months if the menstrual period has not yet returned and mom continues nightly feedings. Of course, if another baby is not in the plan, it’s smart to use a backup method, like condoms.

9 months

Feeding recommendations between 6 and 12 months of age include breastfeeding on demand and offering other foods between 3 to 5 times a day. During this time, breast milk should still be offered before meals, with table foods considered supplemental.

With the exception of a possible continued reduction in the risk for breast cancer, sources do not note a continued lowering of the risk of other illnesses to moms who breastfeed longer than six months.

1 year

Another benefit of breastfeeding long-term is cost savings. You’re likely to save a great deal of money on formula, which can average just over $800 on the low end to upwards of $3,000 in the first year.

Babies who are breastfed for a year also may have stronger immune systems and may be less likely to need speech therapy or orthodontic work. Why? The theory is that all that sucking at the breast helps to develop muscles in and around the mouth.

Beyond a year

Feeding recommendations at a year and beyond include breastfeeding on demand and offering other foods five times a day. You may also introduce cow’s milk at this time if you wish to stop offering breast milk, or are looking for a breast milk substitute.

Some older research suggests that longer duration breastfeeding may give kids an edge when it comes to IQ scores and social development. However, more recent research has found that the benefits to IQ may only be temporary.

There are many reasons women decide to supplement feeding with bottles of breast milk or commercial formulas. Breastfeeding doesn’t need to be all-or-nothing. Your baby can still benefit from receiving some breast milk.

When you combine some feeds with breast milk and others with formula, it’s called combination feeding. Some benefits of combination feeding include:

  • skin-to-skin contact with mom for bonding
  • benefit of sucking at breast for oral development
  • exposure to antibodies that help with allergy and disease prevention
  • continued health benefits for mom

Combo feeding can be especially helpful to working moms who don’t wish to pump at work or are otherwise unable to pump. Keep in mind that some babies may “reverse cycle” and nurse more frequently when they’re together with mom.

In different parts of the world, the average weaning age is between 2 and 4 years old. Some children are breastfed until ages 6 or 7 in other cultures.

There aren’t any well-known risks of continuing breastfeeding longer than the first one or two years. There also isn’t compelling evidence to suggest that longer duration of a feeding relationship makes weaning more difficult.

The WHO suggests continuing breastfeeding with complementary foods until the child’s second birthday or beyond. The AAP suggests continuing breastfeeding along with foods until the child’s first birthday, or as long beyond that as mutually desired by mother and baby.

Some signs your baby may be ready to wean include:

  • being over a year old
  • getting more nutrition from solid foods
  • drinking well from a cup
  • gradually cutting down on nursing sessions unprompted
  • resisting nursing sessions

That said, the decision over when to wean is personal. If you’re ready to wean before your child reaches these milestones, don’t worry. You’re doing an amazing job no matter how you continue to feed your baby.

How to wean

Weaning begins with the baby’s introduction to table foods, so you may already be on your way without realizing it. Actively dropping breastfeeding feeds is the next step in the process once meals are better established.

Some tips:

  • Taper off versus going cold turkey to help your supply lessen without engorgement issues. Try dropping only one feed every one or two weeks, for example.
  • Start by dropping midday feeds. The first and last feedings of the day are generally more difficult to stop for baby and because of engorgement.
  • Change up your routine around usual feeding times. For example, avoid sitting in familiar nursing spots.
  • Offer expressed breast milk in a cup or bottle. Your child will still get the benefits of breast milk, just from a different source.
  • Relieve discomfort by applying cold compresses or even cabbage leaves to your breasts.

If you sense resistance or if your child wants to nurse, breastfeed them. The process might not be linear, and you can always try again tomorrow. In the meantime, work on methods of distraction with meals, toys, or stuffed animals, and other activities. And be sure to offer your little one lots of close contact and cuddles during the transition.

Ultimately, how long you breastfeed is up to you and your baby. There are benefits if you breastfeed only a few days, and others that continue for years for both mother and child. You and your baby can also benefit from combination feedings, or supplementing breast milk with other food sources, like formula or solids.

Trust yourself and try your best not to worry what others think of your personal decisions. If you need support with feeding issues or other questions, consider reaching out to your doctor or a lactation specialist in your area.