Diane Wiessinger, MS, IBCLC
Breastfeeding your baby for even a day is the best baby gift you can give. Breastfeeding is almost always the best choice for your baby. If it doesn’t seem like the best choice for you right now, consider the following:
If you nurse your baby for just a few days, he will have received your colostrum, or early milk. By providing antibodies and the food his brand-new body expects, nursing gives your baby his first — and easiest — “immunization” and helps get his digestive system going smoothly. Breastfeeding is how your baby expects to start, and helps your own body recover from the birth. Why not use your time in the hospital to prepare your baby for life through the gift of nursing?
If you nurse your baby for four to six weeks, you will have eased him through the most critical part of his infancy. Newborns who are not breastfed are much more likely to get sick or be hospitalized, and have many more digestive problems than breastfed babies. After four to six weeks, you’ll probably have worked through any early nursing concerns, too.
If you nurse your baby for three or four months, his digestive system will have matured a great deal, and he will be much better able to tolerate the foreign substances in commercial formula. If there is a family history of allergies, though, you will greatly reduce his risk by waiting a few more months before adding anything at all to his diet of breastmilk. And giving nothing but your milk for the first four months gives strong protection against ear infections.
If you nurse your baby for six months, he will be much less likely to suffer an allergic reaction to formula or other foods. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends waiting until about six months to offer solid foods. Nursing for at least six months helps ensure better health throughout your baby’s first year of life, and reduces your own risk of breast cancer. Nursing for six months or more may greatly reduce your little one’s risk of childhood cancers. And exclusive, frequent breastfeeding during the first six months, if your periods have not returned, offers 98 percent effective contraception.
If you nurse your baby for nine months, you will have given him the food that was designed for him — your milk — during the fastest and most important brain and body development of his life. Nursing for at least this long will help ensure better performance all through his school years. Weaning may be fairly easy at this age . . . but then, so is nursing! If you want to avoid weaning this early, be sure you are available to nurse for comfort as well as just for food.
If you nurse your baby for a year, you can avoid the expense, bother and risk of formula. His one-year-old body can probably handle most of the table foods your family enjoys. Many of the health benefits this year of nursing has given your child will last his whole life. He will have a stronger immune system and will be much less likely to need orthodontia or speech therapy. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends nursing for at least a year.
If you nurse your baby for 18 months, you will continue to provide your baby with protection against illness at a time when illness is common in other babies. He has had time to form a solid bond with you, a healthy starting point for his growing independence. And he is old enough that you and he can work together on the weaning process, at a pace that he can handle. A former U.S. Surgeon General said, “It is the lucky baby that nurses to age two.”
If your child weans when he is ready, you can feel confident that you have met your baby’s physical and emotional needs in a very normal, healthy way. In cultures where there is no pressure to wean, children tend to nurse for at least two years.
The World Health Organization and UNICEF strongly encourage breastfeeding through toddlerhood. Breastmilk is an important source of energy and protein, and helps to protect against disease during the child’s second year of life. It just makes sense to nourish our children’s growing bodies with the milk that was designed for them.
Your milk provides antibodies and other protective substances as long as you continue nursing, and families of nursing toddlers often find that their medical bills are lower than their neighbors’ for years to come. Mothers who have nursed long-term have a still lower risk of developing breast cancer.
Children who were nursed long-term tend to be very secure and are less likely to suck their thumbs or carry a blanket. Nursing can ease you through the tears, tantrums and tumbles that come with early childhood, and helps ensure that any illnesses are milder and easier to deal with. It’s an all-purpose mothering tool you won’t want to be without! Don’t worry that your child will nurse forever.
All children stop eventually, no matter what you do, and there are more nursing toddlers around than you might guess.
Whether you nurse for a day or several years, the decision to nurse your baby is one you need never regret. And whenever weaning takes place, remember that it is a big step for both of you. If you choose to wean before your child is ready, be sure to do it gradually, and with love.