Feeding babies can feel complicated. However, there are a few recommendations to make things a little simpler. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the World Health Organization recommend exclusive breastfeeding of infants for at least six months and continued breastfeeding (along with nutritious complementary foods) up through 2 years, or as long as both a mom and a baby desire. That being said, many families ask if there are benefits to any amount of breastfeeding past that first 6 months.
Health professionals agree that there are numerous benefits to both a mother and her breastfed child if breastfeeding continues beyond 6 months. Please note though that any breastfeeding is beneficial! Any amount of breast milk makes a difference, even small amounts.
It’s also true that, for many families, infant formula is the best or only choice. (Formula also provides great nutrition to babies).
In other words, even though we have very general recommendations about breastfeeding, they may not apply to every single family.
So, today’s article is for those who are able and willing to continue breastfeeding longer than 6 months. What does it look like and what are the health benefits?
Benefits for Babies: Breastfeeding Beyond 6 Months
There are benefits to both a mother and her child to breastfeeding. First, we’ll go over some of the benefits to the baby.
(For clarity, I’ll refer to the lactating parent as the “mother,” while fully acknowledging that this isn’t the case in all situations. And I’ll usually refer to human milk as breast milk).
Feeding beyond the early weeks
In the first few months of breastfeeding, it can be hard to think more than a moment or two ahead. For those wondering how a breastfeeding relationship can evolve as a baby grows, this is one example of a breastfeeding journey from the challenging early days to the sweet toddler days and past two years of age.
There are many intangible benefits to breastfeeding past 6 months. We need to remember those right along with all the scientifically proven perks.
Nutritional Benefits of Breastfeeding Beyond Six Months of Age
For the first 6 months or so, breast milk or formula can provide all of a baby’s nutritional needs. (This is a very general statement and may not apply to babies born prematurely or with other medical conditions. Always follow the individualized advice from your health care professional).
Even after solid foods are introduced, breast milk still provides excellent infant nutrition! It’s a great source of hydration, calcium, protein, vitamins, and minerals, not to mention all the immune benefits (more on that later).
To think of it another way, breast milk doesn’t suddenly change to empty calories or water at age 6 months (or even one or two years, for that matter). Good news: Breast milk is still a high quality drink that also nourished a newborn and growing infant.
It’s true that babies over 6 months and older children need additional nutrients, and probably continued vitamin D supplements, but the breast milk itself is still incredibly nutritious. (And no, cow’s milk isn’t required starting at age 1 year, especially if a baby still drinks breast milk).
Please see this post on how milk supply might change after introduction of solids.
Babies who breastfeed have lower risk of many infectious diseases.
Although breastfeeding helps protect against SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome) in the first several months of life and helps reduce some complications in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), some benefits persist well beyond age 6 months, especially regarding infections.
Because breast milk has antibodies (part of the immune system), it can help fight and prevent infections. In other words, a baby’s immune system is affected by breast milk. The mother’s immune system can influence breast milk too.
Babies who drink breast milk have a reduced risk of:
- ear infections
- respiratory infections (like bronchiolitis)
- gastrointestinal (GI) infections.
- other chronic conditions (Some studies show breastfed babies have lower risk of asthma, obesity, and type one diabetes).
Allow me to insert a quick opinion here. Yes, breastfeeding is tremendously powerful. However, two things are also true:
- If a baby was not breastfed and develops one of the above conditions, asthma for example, it is not a parent’s “fault.” There are many factors at play here. Parents make the best possible choices each day. And truly, sometimes formula is simply the best choice. All these facts are population-level statistics and information. So, they’re hard to apply to any one specific family.
- If a child is already at risk for asthma or obesity, then yes breastfeeding is a great thing to think about. This is in addition to a million other parenting decisions over the course of their childhood. Finding a safe place for your child to play outside may have a huge impact on these same conditions, for example.
In other words, breast milk is not the only road that leads to a healthy kid.
Benefits to a Parent Breastfeeding Beyond Six months
The benefits of breast milk and breastfeeding don’t just affect a baby or toddler. There’s ample evidence that breastfeeding mothers can also benefit. A breastfeeding mother has lower risks of :
- Ovarian cancer
- Breast cancer
- High blood pressure
- Type 2 diabetes mellitus
These evidence-based benefits extend beyond a baby’s first year of life. However, if you ask any breastfeeding mother about her experience, she’ll have her own list of challenges and benefits, many of which can never be quantified or explained in research studies.
For example, recent studies have looked into the impacts breastfeeding has on maternal mental health, including postpartum depression. There’s still a lot to learn.
Summary: There are benefits to breastfeeding for any amount of time, even beyond the first six months.
Each parent feeds their children in the way that makes the most sense for their family. Sometimes it’s infant formula. Sometimes it’s both formula and breast milk. Or, it’s breast milk alone. It’s a personal decision. When breast milk is involved, there are clear benefits to both the breastfeeding parent and her child. A breastfed baby’s risk of many infections and common illnesses goes down. There’s a lower risk of SIDS. And, a mother’s risk of several more chronic conditions can be reduced as well.
If you or family members have specific questions about feeding your baby or your baby’s needs, please discuss with your pediatrician, other health care provider, or lactation consultant. The optimal duration of breastfeeding is not the same for each family.
Disclaimer: This is for information only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or feeding your baby. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website.
Maya M. Mahmood, D.O., FAAP is a board-certified pediatrician and mom. She is passionate about parents having evidence-based information to help their families be healthier. Subscribe to the newsletter for regular updates.