How Long to Breastfeed

Nursing Know-How for New Moms

It really doesn't seem right that you and your infant are sent home from the hospital without any kind of owner's manual. You're just supposed to know how to care for this vulnerable little baby? How can you even know whether you're feeding him the right way and when it's time to stop nursing? It's overwhelming at first, for sure, so it's helpful to know that experts recommend you breastfeed for at least the first year of your baby's life. If breastfeeding works for you and your baby past that mark, keep at it. And if it's not working for either of you? Stop without feeling any guilt.

The Recommended Breastfeeding Timeline

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How to Wean From Breastfeeding

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Most medical and infant experts agree that in an ideal situation, a baby breastfeeds exclusively up to the age of 6 months and receives a combination of breast milk and solids up to the first birthday. But those same experts also agree that ultimately, your primary concern should be making sure that your baby is adequately nourished—and if you accomplish that goal using formula—that's OK too.

If you're able and willing to breastfeed up to the time your baby turns 1, and you want to continue nursing past that point, you can keep nursing up until it makes sense to wean. Your baby may be the one who initiates weaning, simply by showing less interest in breastfeeding. Alternately, you may be the one who decides that it's time to stop, such as if your work schedule makes it difficult to maintain a nursing routine, for example, or if you're finding breastfeeding painful.

How Often Should He Nurse?

Newborns have tiny tummies and have to breastfeed often, typically needing eight to 12 feedings per every 24-hour period. That works out to one feeding every two to three hours. Most newborns wake up on their own during the night to nurse. If yours is a sound sleeper, wake him at least once every four hours to feed him.

Feeding frequency typically slows down by a baby's second month of age. He may need just six to eight feedings per day at this point. As long as your baby continues to gain weight and his pediatrician says that he's growing and developing normally, you can worry less about feeding him according to a strict schedule. You'll learn to tell that he's getting hungry by the way he starts to fuss, and you will likely develop a natural breastfeeding routine.

How Long Should He Nurse?

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Can Breastfeeding Be Physically Exhausting?

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It's your body, but you don't actually get much say when it comes to determining the length of a nursing session. The duration will depend on how much milk you have available and the extent of your baby's interest in nursing. That's why it's impossible to say how long any given breastfeeding session "should" last.

Generally, newborns nurse for longer periods of time than older babies. They're still getting the hang of things, and they get sleepy easily. A newborn may nurse for up to 45 minutes at a time, splitting a session between both breasts. Once your baby is accustomed to the routine and learns to nurse efficiently, he may spend just five minutes or less per breast. Some babies will take longer.

Rather than focusing on how long a given session lasts, look for clues that your baby is fully satiated when deciding whether to end a session. He should lose interest in the breast and may either fall asleep or start to get distracted by other sights and sounds. He also should seem satisfied rather than fussy. These are solid indications that he's no longer hungry.

Ending Breastfeeding the Gentle Way

If it's your child who loses interest in breastfeeding and he's 1 or older, you can simply forego nursing unless he initiates it. Express a small amount of milk when you feel engorged, just enough to relieve the pressure. Your body will get the message that it needs to slow down milk production. If he's not yet 1 and loses interest in breastfeeding, or you need to wean him, talk to your pediatrician about whether you need to supplement his diet with formula. You'll have to give him formula exclusively if he's younger than 6 months old.

If your child is 1 or older and it's your decision to wean, start by eliminating one of his regular feedings every day or two. Continue gradually dropping breastfeeding sessions over the course of a few weeks. Give him a drink of water or a snack at those regular feeding times if he seems fussy.

Even if it's your child who initiates weaning, the adjustment can be an emotional one. Take care to provide extra snuggles and one-on-time time while you transition away from breastfeeding to keep your bond strong, even as this chapter of your relationship ends.