Breastfeeding is one of the most natural acts for a mother and her newborn. The World Health Organisation (WHO) promotes exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of the life of an infant. However, according to a survey conducted by the American Association of Pediatrics (AAP), two-thirds of women who intend to breastfeed their babies are not able to do so for the intended period. Clearly, it is not as easy as it sounds like. Is there an average age to stop breastfeeding?
Here is our practical, non-judgmental guide for when it is better to stop breastfeeding than continuing it. We are not advocating against breastfeeding. We just want to help mums overcome the mum-guilt when breastfeeding is taking a toll on their physical and mental wellbeing.
Is there an average age to stop breastfeeding? When is it OK to stop?
Breastfeeding is the recommended nutrition for all infants. Organisations like WHO and AAP promote exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of age.
Exclusive breastfeeding entails feeding the baby breastmilk alone without any other fluids, including water.
WHO recommends breastfeeding babies to 24 months and beyond. The period between six and 24 months is the time when the babies transition to adult food.
That said, it would be improper to look at breastfeeding as a mere source of nutrition. Breastmilk is the source of almost every nutrient for an infant for the first six months (however, sometimes, doctors recommend vitamin D supplements for breastfed babies).
In addition, it also acts in providing the necessary immunity to the baby. The social aspects such as maternal bonding are equally important. Prolactin, the hormone that maintains breastfeeding, is also known to reduce anxiety. It also acts as a natural contraceptive, however, this method is not the most effective method for spacing babies.
We all agree that breastfeeding has immense benefits. Even then, many women struggle with breastfeeding for a variety of reasons. So the question we need to ask is, should breastfeeding be continued in times of distress? Let’s look at when it is okay to stop breastfeeding, and when it is okay to continue.
Seek Help First
Some mums manage their work-life balance as well as breastfeeding effortlessly. However, for a vast majority, it is not that easy, as attested by the survey by the American Association of Pediatrics.
Thankfully, we live in an age where the child’s nutrition will not suffer if a mum cannot breastfeed. And scientific advancements have ensured that the other aspects of the benefits derived from breastfeeding can also be managed to a degree.
So, if you can, try and breastfeed your baby for at least six months. However, there is no set average age to stop breastfeeding the baby. If you encounter latching and other issues, first talk to your doctor or lactation consultant for help and advice.
3 Valid Reasons for Discontinuing Breastfeeding
Sometimes, mums with breastfeeding issues can be helped to solve their problems with the correct help and timely intervention. But there are a few instances when stopping breastfeeding may be better for both mummy and baby.
Here are three such instances.
1. Severe Depression or Wanting to Harm Self or Baby
One in five women suffer from depression during the first year after birth. Suicide is the second most common cause of postpartum deaths, accounting for every fifth postpartum death. These are grave statistics.
Are you battling with dark thoughts and moods, and is breastfeeding making it all the more difficult? Does the physical proximity of breastfeeding trigger past traumatic experiences? Are you on strong medication for depression? Do you feel like harming your baby or yourself when you breastfeed?
If you answered “yes” to some or all of these questions, don’t feel guilty about stopping breastfeeding. At the same time, it is crucial that you also speak to a doctor without delay.
If you have twins, triplets, or more, congratulations! However, dealing with many babies at the same time is certainly not an easy task.
Many women do manage to breastfeed multiple babies simultaneously. However, it might become increasingly difficult when they cluster feed, or after an immunisation when they need to suckle for pacification.
If it is becoming too much to handle, it is okay to switch to an alternative. At the end of the day, you need to have the strength to take care of your babies.
3. Exhausting Lifestyle
When you head back to work, you may wish to pump breastmilk so your baby continues to get its benefits. Most working breastfeeding mums manage to set up an effective system of pumping.
However, some working mums may not find it possible to find time to pump regularly and keep up their breastmilk supply.
Also, some of us have to travel a lot for work. In that event, to keep the supply up, you still have to pump regularly. And if you are travelling for an extended period of time, it is very difficult to keep up with the pumping schedule.
It might also be tough to schedule meetings around your pumping schedule. Meanwhile, others may have storage issues when it comes to keeping their expressed milk fresh.
If there are no facilities for pumping and storing breastmilk, or if you travel for a long periods at a stretch, very often, it is okay to switch to alternatives. As you see, there is no average age to stop breastfeeding. Find time to Facetime your bub instead of sneaking to the hotel’s bathroom to pump. It will reduce your stress immensely.
Reasons NOT to Discontinue Breastfeeding
While we discussed the main reasons for when it’s okay to discontinue breastfeeding, here are some reasons not to:
- Mastitis. It is an inflammation of the breast causing severe pain while feeding caused by blocked ducts. You can usually feel a hard sore area that is painful while feeding. While the pain might make you want to stop right away, feeding is one of the ways of reducing the pain and inflammation as ducts get cleared.
- Jaundice. Breastfed babies may suffer from jaundice in their early days more than formula-fed babies. So, unless explicitly stated by the paediatrician, do not switch if you are motivated enough to breastfeed the baby.
- The baby does not seem well-fed. It is difficult to estimate how much the baby consumed while breastfeeding. Babies are exploring their world, so if they are unhappy, it might not be because they are hungry. The best way to keep tabs on nutrition is to count the number of wet nappies. A well-fed baby will urinate frequently, and a guide can be found here.
Mums, to conclude, there is no set average age to stop breastfeeding. You can stop as early as you want to or continue as long as you want to, as long as your child’s nutritional needs – and your own physical and mental needs – are fulfilled.
- How to stop breastfeeding. NHS, UK
- Baby-Friendly Hospital Practices and Meeting Exclusive Breastfeeding Intention, Pediatrics.
- Acceptable medical reasons for use of breast-milk substitutes, World Health Organisation