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How long should you breastfeed? A new parent’s guide

Not sure how long to breastfeed a newborn? The thing about breastfeeding is that it can look different for every family. A newborn breastfeeding schedule and breastfeeding timeline can vary for each baby depending on their needs.

Breastfeeding is beneficial for both the parent and baby for multiple reasons such as breastmilk providing the perfect array of nutrients and it ensures frequent bonding time for the parent and newborn. Knowing the reasons to stop breastfeeding and how often to breastfeed can help you decide if breastfeeding is right for your family and how long you want to breastfeed your little one.

Mother breastfeeding baby in nursery.

The Mother Baby Center offers support from lactation consultants for every stage of your breastfeeding timeline.

How long should you breastfeed?

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), babies should breastfeed through the fourth trimester until six months, then continue breastfeeding for as long as mom and baby would like to continue, for two years or beyond.

Foods rich in protein, zinc, and iron should be added to the baby’s diet around six months, while breastmilk should remain the primary source of nutrition.

The average breastfeeding time varies widely around the world and even throughout the United States. Whether you decide to breastfeed for a shorter or longer time is up to you and your family. Everyone’s breastfeeding journey will look different but trust that you will know what is best for yourself and your baby.

Stopping breastfeeding early

No two breastfeeding journeys are the same and lots of parents continue to breastfeed for two years or longer. Mothers may stop breastfeeding before this for multiple reasons. This could be due to medical reasons, a difficult or painful latch, insufficient breast milk supply or simply personal choice. If a baby stops breastfeeding before one year, then their primary source of nutrition should be to transition to infant formula.

What is extended breastfeeding

Breastfeeding beyond the first year is considered extended breastfeeding. Although the term ‘extended breastfeeding’ makes it seem as if it is something out of the norm, it is biologically normal. In fact, in many cultures, many people breastfeed for two or three years or longer. If you’re debating about whether you want to continue breastfeeding, some benefits are:

  • Protection from disease and illness for both the parent and the baby.
  • Breastmilk continues to have nutritional value for your baby and will continue to change to meet their growing needs.
  • During times of illness, the parent will produce specific antibodies to help protect their baby.
  • Breastfeeding continues to be a bonding time and an easy way to soothe an upset toddler.

How often should you breastfeed

How often you should breastfeed will depend on your baby and how old they are. For breastfeeding on demand, it is important to watch for cues of when your baby is hungry and is ready to be breastfed.

  • Newborns: The frequency of newborn breastfeeding time during this stage is typically every one to three hours. It is normal for breastfed babies to want to eat 12 or more times per day, as breastmilk is digested much more quickly than formula.
  • 1-3 months: During this stage, parents can expect to breastfeed every two to four hours. If you plan to exclusively breastfeed your baby and want to keep your milk supply up, keep in mind that the more you breastfeed, the more milk your body will produce.
  • 4-6 months: When your baby hits the 4-6 months old mark, you may notice that they are more interested in the world around them and may get distracted during feedings. During some stages, you may need to find a quiet place to get a full feeding in, or you may find that distracted babies need more frequent, smaller feedings.
  • 6+ months: As your baby gets older and can start eating solid foods, you may notice that their feeding patterns change as more solids are offered. If they seem to be breastfeeding less, you may want to offer the breast before solids to encourage continued breastfeeding, as this remains their primary source of nutrition.
  • 12+ months: After this time, breastfeeding patterns vary greatly! Your baby may want to breastfeed mostly before and after sleep times. Other babies continue to breastfeed frequently. Continue to follow your baby’s cues as to how much breastmilk they may need.

How long does nursing take?

Like how often you should breastfeed, the length of nursing sessions will also vary depending on how much milk your breasts can store and the age of your baby. Newborns typically take longer because they are still learning how to breastfeed, so they may not be as efficient yet. For newborns, you can expect nursing to take anywhere from 15-45 minutes. For babies that are 6 months and older, you can expect nursing to take 10-20 minutes. Learn more about the nine best breastfeeding positions to try with your baby.

When nursing, you’ll find that your baby may want to be breastfed outside of their normal schedule. This can happen for two reasons: cluster feeding or comfort feeding.

  • Cluster feeding is when your baby wants to nurse more often than usual and this will happen during the newborn stage or growth spurts. Although this may cause worry or frustration for some parents, know that it is normal and should only last a couple of days.
  • Comfort feeding is another common time for nursing outside of your baby’s normal time to breastfeed. Nursing is incredible for providing comfort to babies in distress, and you’ll find that when a baby is uncomfortable, nursing will be one of the main ways they seek comfort.
Gay dads feeding their baby a bottle.

Meet other parents and find community through support groups from The Mother Baby Center.

Tracking time between feedings

You can track the time between feedings by taking note of when your little one starts nursing and then when they start nursing again later. Parents can also keep track of which breast the baby starts feeding on to ensure both breasts are being stimulated and emptied equally. Keeping track of each feeding not only allows you to better understand when your little one will typically be hungry but also ensures that your baby does not go too long without feeding. It is recommended to breastfeed on demand or whenever your baby is showing feeding cues, as scheduling breastfeeding times can lead to decreased milk production and your baby not getting enough milk to grow.

When to switch sides while nursing

Allow baby to breastfeed for as long as they want on the first breast or until they fall asleep or pull off, then offer a burp and reattach to the other breast. For the next feeding, start on the alternate side. Some babies routinely take milk from both breasts at each feeding, while others only nurse on one side at most feedings.

Alternating breasts will help give each breast the same amount of nursing throughout the day and keep your milk supply consistent in both breasts. Trying different breastfeeding positions can help make switching between breasts easier for you and baby. Alternating which breast you start on can also help avoid the pain that comes with a breast overfilling with milk, also known as engorgement.

Reasons to stop breastfeeding

The breastfeeding journey is in no way a one-size-fits-all. The experience can be beautiful, frustrating, easy, stressful and so much more. Below are some common reasons that a parent may decide to stop breastfeeding, or maybe not do it at all. Regardless of your reason, remember that it is valid, and your baby will still be getting the nutrients they need to grow and be healthy from formula.

  • Mental health and exhaustion. Breastfeeding can be both physically and mentally exhausting. Breastfeeding can negatively impact mental health for many reasons, such as breastfeeding goals not getting met or if milk supply is low. Finding resources such as a lactation consultant or mental help therapist can help ease this transition in life.
  • Preference for bottle-feeding. It is not uncommon for babies to latch more quickly to a bottle nipple as it can easily be slipped into their mouth. The fact that the milk immediately starts to flow and continues to drop into babies’ mouth, even when not actively sucking, makes bottling sometimes more efficient for the baby.
  • Low milk production. There are a lot of reasons for a low milk supply. This can range from your baby not feeding enough to increase milk supply, health-related issues, previous breast surgery and more. Oftentimes, milk production can be increased with support and guidance from a lactation consultant.
  • Time. There is a huge upfront investment in time to learn how to breastfeed in the first six weeks of a baby’s life. Studies show that the time investment for breastfeeding eases after the first month or so, and formula feeding takes more time in the long run. However, for some families, breastfeeding can still be hard to fit into their schedule. It is important to do what is best for your family and little one.
  • Medication. Medication can pass into the milk supply and affect the baby. Although most medications don’t pass enough into the milk supply to affect your baby, it is important to talk to a provider about any medication you’re taking before breastfeeding.
  • Working. Some mothers may need to return to work rather quickly after a baby is born. They may also have difficulty finding time to pump. However, there are protective laws that allow a mother the time to get breaks at work, and they have recently gotten even stronger in favor of mothers and babies. Learn more about the new laws here.
  • Personal choice. It is okay to stop breastfeeding just because you simply want to.

Should you pump while weaning?

When you begin weaning, you may find that your breasts are engorged and uncomfortable. You can pump your breasts to ease the pain and fullness but do not pump until your breasts no longer have any milk. Pumping until empty will send signals to your body to keep producing milk so you should only pump or hand express enough milk to feel comfortable. To ease the pain or soreness, you can use ice packs or pain reliever medication.

Parent sits in chair holding newborn with breast pumps on table next to them.

Learn how you can donate milk at The Mother Baby Center for the Minnesota Milk Center for Babies.

What to expect as you begin to wean

Weaning can happen at any time, whether it be because your baby is starting to eat more solid food, switching to formula or you decide to stop breastfeeding. Weaning should be taken with a slow approach and can take a month or longer to fully wean your baby.

As with everything else, change can be uncomfortable. Weaning can be hard emotionally and full of ups and downs for both the parent and the baby. 

Emotional changes

Weaning can be an emotionally difficult process. For the baby or child, nursing was a bonding and comforting place for them, and losing that can be hard. As for the parent, this process can bring on guilt for deciding to stop breastfeeding or denying your baby nursing time, hormones changing, and a shift in bonding time. While weaning you may find it helpful to seek out your support person or a mental health professional to help with all the changes.

Physical changes

A physical change to look out for when weaning is the size of your breasts. At the beginning of weaning, you may notice that they are full because your baby is no longer sucking the milk from them. This can lead to some discomfort, soreness, and pain for some parents. To help ease the discomfort, you can take over-the-counter pain medication, pump your breasts just enough to reduce fullness, and wear supportive bras. 

Another physical change to keep in mind is breasts going back to the size they were before pregnancy once breastfeeding is stopped and weaning is over. This is because your breasts are no longer producing milk to fill them.

Bonding with baby

While weaning, it is important to set up new ways to bond with your baby or child. Having the nursing time taken away from them can cause a lot of distress. Some new ways to bond with your child can look like setting up more play time, experiencing new things together or snuggling during the time that you usually would be nursing.

Guilt is a common feeling while weaning, but know that, at the end of it all, this new change can also bring a lot of happiness to both you and your baby. It’ll give you both time to explore new things.

Methods to stop breastfeeding

The age to stop breastfeeding is up to families and what works for them. It can go as long or short as a parent or baby wants it to. Although you can abruptly stop breastfeeding, it is recommended to do it gradually to give both you and your baby time to adjust. Parents can expect gradual weaning to take four weeks or longer. 

Below are a couple of methods, such as baby-led or parent-led weaning, that can be used when weaning your little one.

Mom nurses baby in nursery.

Read on about the nine breastfeeding positions for you and baby to find what works for you.

Baby-led weaning

Baby-led weaning is following your baby’s lead when they are ready. Baby-led weaning typically happens when a baby is ready to start exploring solid food. The best way to approach this is to still offer the normal breastfeeding times to your baby on top of solid foods for them to explore at the beginning of weaning. It is important to offer normal breastfeeding times in the beginning because breastmilk will still be your baby’s main source of nutrients while they are getting used to solid food.

As your little one starts getting more comfortable with solids, you’ll notice that they may start skipping feedings as they stay fuller for longer from solid food. You can then start dropping nursing sessions throughout the day.

Parent-led weaning

Parent-led weaning is when a parent starts weaning before a baby or child is ready to naturally stop. There can be many reasons why a parent may need to stop breastfeeding, whether it be health or time related. 

There are two main methods of parent-led weaning. You can either cut back on how long you are breastfeeding at every session or cut out one breastfeeding session at a time. If you are using the latter approach, it is important to remember to do this gradually. Every time you remove a session from the schedule, wait at least 3-4 days before taking another one off the schedule.

Combination of baby-led and parent-led weaning

There is no right or wrong way to wean your baby. If you feel like baby-led or parent-led weaning isn’t the perfect option for your family, you can also consider combining the two methods. This can look like waiting until your baby is ready to start weaning and then using parent-led weaning methods or vice versa. Regardless of how you choose to wean your baby, it is important to remember to still provide them with enough nutrients for healthy development.

Find community and support during your breastfeeding journey at The Mother Baby Center

It can get confusing trying to figure out the normal age to stop breastfeeding, how to wean, and breastfeeding duration, but know that every parent’s breastfeeding journey will look different. Some parents will opt to not breastfeed at all, some parents will choose to do extended breastfeeding where they continue breastfeeding beyond the one-year mark, and some may be in the middle of the two.

Regardless of where you fall, The Mother Baby Center is ready to support you through it all. For breastfeeding support, you can contact our lactation consultants or join one of our support groups.