As someone who exclusively pumped breast milk for 18 months for my son who would not latch, I was definitely wondering when the benefits of breastfeeding diminish so I could feel comfortable being done with all that pumping. Although I felt like it was best for my child at the time, boy was it ever exhausting and, sometimes, even painful. For parents who are ready to stop their breastfeeding journey, or for those who are trying to figure out how long they need to breastfeed to maximize the benefits for their baby, it’s normal to wonder if there is an ideal — or even just OK — time to stop breastfeeding. Do the health benefits of breastfeeding diminish for the baby once they reach a certain age and, if so, when?
At what age is breast milk most beneficial for baby's development?
“Any amount of breast milk can help with a baby’s development,” says Dr. Gina Posner, M.D., a pediatrician at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California. “I always encourage moms to nurse for as long as they can,” she says. However, any amount of breastfeeding that you are able to do offers lots of benefit, and you should feel really good about even deciding to give it a try. “Even if they are only able to nurse for a month or two...it helps prevent illnesses and gives the baby good antibodies from mom. It helps with brain development. It is the perfect food for you baby, but if you can’t nurse, formulas are a great option as well,” Posner says.
When do the benefits of breastfeeding diminish?
The quick and easy answer is that the health benefits for the child never diminish.
However, that doesn’t mean you need to breastfeed longer than you want to or feel good about. “The benefits of breastfeeding diminish for the mom or the lactating parent only when the parent is no longer interested in nursing their child. If the parent is experiencing depression or resentment and this is diminishing quality in their life, then it may be time to slow down or stop breastfeeding,” says Jada Shapiro, certified lactation support counselor and founder of boober.
Advantages of extended breastfeeding
Some benefits of breastfeeding can actually get better the longer you breastfeed, says Abrie McCoy, International Board-Certified Lactation Counselor (IBCLC). “Milk from a parent that has lactated for more than a year has been found to have higher protein, fat, and immunoglobulin A,” she says. It also supports improved intellectual, mental, and social development, she adds.
“The longer a baby breastfeeds, they they will continue to receive antibodies to whatever current illness is present, they will continue to receive the increasing amounts of omega-3 fatty acids which helps with the brain development,” Shapiro says. They will also receive vitamins and minerals, and they will being less prone to developing illness like asthma, leukemia, lymphoma and diabetes, and diabetes, according to Shapiro.
Plus, there are benefits to the parent who is breastfeeding, too. “Essentially, the longer a parent breastfeeds, the lower their risk of disease like breast cancer, ovarian cancer, hypertension, heart disease, etc.,” Shapiro says.
With all of these advantages, are there any disadvantages?
Disadvantages to extended breastfeeding
Shapiro says there are no disadvantages continuing breastfeeding after the first year unless it disrupts the parents’ life in a negative way. “Some parents explain that this time is blissful, while others may find it overwhelming. As the most recent AAP recommendation says, breastfeeding should continue as long as it is mutually desired by both parent and child,” McCoy adds.
While the benefits don’t ever diminish for the person breastfeeding or the baby, it’s important to know when you’re ready to stop and to know that babies can thrive whether they are breastfed or formula fed. Breastfeeding should only continue if it’s being enjoyed by everyone involved.
Dr. Gina Posner, M.D., a pediatrician at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California
Lackey, K. A., Fehrenkamp, B. D., Pace, R. M., Williams, J. E., Meehan, C. L., McGuire, M. A., & McGuire, M. K. (2021). Breastfeeding Beyond 12 Months: Is There Evidence for Health Impacts?. Annual review of nutrition, 41, 283–308. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-nutr-043020-011242