person holding newborn baby
Author: TLN

The benefits of breastfeeding: A timeline for the ages 

Breastfeeding is more than the act of just feeding your little one. It also provides an incredible number of health benefits to both you and your baby — in addition to all the money saved on formula. That’s why the American Academy of Pediatrics and the World Health Organization both recommend exclusive breastfeeding for 6 months followed by continued breastfeeding with complementary foods for at least 2 years and beyond as mutually desired. Outside of Western culture, where natural weaning is practiced more readily, the average age to stop breastfeeding globally is between two and four years old

There’s no right answer for how long you should breastfeed — but more time does bring more benefits. Whether you breastfeed for four months, nine months, two years or more, you’ll give your baby and yourself a priceless gift with effects that carry over into the years to come. Breastfeeding also helps our society as a whole by reducing healthcare costs, environmental waste, and the need for maternal sick days. Here is a timeline of the key health benefits of breastfeeding for both mom and baby: 

A few days

Colostrum — that thick liquid gold you produce for three to four days after your baby is born — provides antibodies, serving as the first “immunization” for your baby. It also supplies the perfect nutrition at a slow rate while they learn to nurse. In these early days, colostrum stabilizes your baby’s blood sugars, kick-starts the digestive system, and contributes to their mental development.  

But the benefits don’t end there: Breastfeeding also helps you recover physically from giving birth by causing your uterus to contract back to its normal size. Finally, all that skin-to-skin contact between parent and baby creates a perfect environment for quality bonding and has its own list of advantages. Remember, if you experience any trouble in these early days and beyond, request a consultation with a lactation consultant for extra support. They’re here to help you deliver quality nutrition to your baby. 

Four to six weeks 

After the first few weeks, you will probably be past some of those early challenges (like latching issues and pain), and you’ll have an established milk supply. This period is the most critical time for building baby’s immune system. As your little one grows, your breast milk adapts to your baby’s needs, providing nutrients that are perfect for their developmental state. At this stage, breast milk helps prevent digestive issues and chest infections while providing the nutrition they need to reach those early growth markers.  

A perk of breastfeeding: You won’t have to deal with washing and preparing bottles — at least until you start pumping breast milk. This makes middle-of-the-night and on-the-go feedings quicker and easier. 

Two months

Research has found that breastfeeding for any duration of time lowers the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) by 60 percent while breastfeeding for a longer period only increases the positive effect. Babies breastfed until two months of age and older had a 62 percent lower risk of SIDS, while babies who were exclusively breastfed during the same time period had a 73 percent lower risk. After two months of breastfeeding, your baby may also have a reduced risk for food allergies.  

When it comes to benefits for lactating parents, breastfeeding burns about 500 extra calories a day, and may give your metabolism a boost. That being said, our body will remain in a state of flux postpartum — after all, it took nine months to grow that baby. The top priority is maintaining a healthy weight as you nourish yourself and your little one. 

Three to four months

Three to four months of breastfeeding protects your little one against asthma for the first two years of their life while breastfeeding for longer periods of time offers protection that extends past five years. Studies have also shown that exclusive breastfeeding for four months lowers your baby’s risk of chest infection and diarrhea as their digestive and immune systems continue to develop.  

As for maternal benefits, breastfeeding parents experience lower rates of postpartum depression up to four months after giving birth. The act of breastfeeding may also help moms recover more quickly from these symptoms. 

Six months

Good news for you, mom! Breastfeeding exclusively for six months lowers your baby’s risk for ear, nose, throat and sinus infections past infancy and may protect against autoimmune disease and respiratory allergies as well. After six months of breastfeeding, your baby also has a 19 percent lower risk for childhood leukemia. Finally, studies have linked breastfeeding with improved cognitive development that extends into childhood. Breastfed babies often develop motor skills at an earlier age and may be less likely to have emotional and behavioral problems. For moms, the advantages of breastfeeding for six months include a lower risk of type 2 diabetes — even decades later. This benefit extends to birthing parents who experienced gestational diabetes with pregnancy too. 

Nine months

Your breast milk has helped drive your baby’s physical development and continues to fuel them as they become more active and independent. Breastfeeding is also a great way to comfort your baby as they experience growth spurts, teething, and the occasional bump or bruise. If you return to work, spending this quality time with your little one when you return home encourages one-on-one bonding. Plus, establishing a routine gives you both a closeness to look forward to after a day of separation. 

One year

If you’ve breastfed for one year, you have officially saved big bucks on formula — some estimates range from $1,500 to $3,000. Meeting the AAP recommendation of breastfeeding for one year means you’ve given your baby health benefits that will last a lifetime, including being less likely to become overweight later in life and having a lower risk of heart disease as an adult. Breastfed babies are also less likely to need orthodontia and speech therapy because the sucking and pausing patterns particular to breastfeeding lead to greater oral development. It also influences the airway and shape of the roof of the mouth. 

For lactating parents, 12 cumulative months of breastfeeding reduces the risk of breast cancer. However, the benefits double for parents with a lifetime total of two years breastfeeding. Recent studies have found that breastfeeding also lowers a mom’s risk of high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and heart disease, which reduces the risk for stroke and heart attack. 

The benefits of breast milk extend beyond the first year. Of course, it’s up to you how long you want to breastfeed — one month, one year, or more. The key is to wean when you and your baby are ready. 

This timeline is not supposed to serve as a guilt trip or put any extra pressure on new parents (we have enough of that!). It’s meant to give you a sense of why pediatricians and global health organizations tout the phrase “breast is best” so often. Breastfeeding your infant provides unique benefits that other sources of nutrition can’t duplicate — for both parent and child. You don’t have to nurse your baby to raise a happy, healthy human, or build a successful bond with them. But if you want to, you deserve to have help, care, and support so that you’re empowered to meet your feeding goals. Ask for help from a lactation consultant when you need it and remember to take care of yourself. 

Contact the team at The Lactation Network. We can connect you with an IBCLC who can help you find a pump that works for you. You can find a breast pump through our marketplace partners here.

Pumped? You’re in the right place.

TLN offers breast pumps and lactation products tailored to your lifestyle and your insurance plan.