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"How Long Should I Nurse?"

by Ms Diane Wiessinger, MS, IBCLC
(Printed with Permission in July/Sept 1998 issue of "Keeping Abreast")

BREASTFEEDING IS BESTFEEDING.   Nursing for even a day is the most precious gift you can give to your baby.  How long should you nurse?  These guidelines may help you decide.

IF YOU NURSE FOR JUST A FEW DAYS,  he will have received your colostrum, or early milk.  Packed with nutrition and antibodies, it helps get your baby's digestive system going and gives him his first  and easiest "immunization".  Breastfeeding gives your baby a great start and helps your own body recover from the birth, too.  Taking time to relax and nurse is a lovely way to get to know your baby.

IF YOU NURSE FOR 4 TO 6 WEEKS,  you will ease him throught the most critical part of infancy.  Breastfed newborns are rarely sick or hospitalized and have few digestive problems.  It takes 4 to 6 weeks to establish your milk supply and a good nursing relationship.  Your body will recover naturally from childbirth.  Remember - nursing mothers usually lose weight more easily!  As an added bonus, prolactin, the "mothering hormone" that is produced every time you nurse, will help you and your baby form a special bond.

IF YOU NURSE FOR 3 TO 4 MONTHS,  baby's digestive system will have matured a great deal, and he will be much better able to tolerate the foreign substances in commercial formulas.  If there is a family history of allergies, though, you will greatly reduce his risk by waiting a few more months before adding anything at all to his diet of breastmilk.  And giving nothing but your milk for the first 4 months gives strong protection against ear infections for a whole year.

IF YOU NURSE FOR 6 MONTHS,  you will supply all your baby's nutrtional needs for the first half year of his life.  At this point, he may be ready to try some other foods.  Nursing continues to ensure good health by providing antibodies to all the bacteria and viruses to which you or your baby are exposed.  One study indicates that continued nursing reduces the risk of both childhood and some adult cancers.

IF YOU NURSE FOR 9 MONTHS,  you will have seen him through the fastest and most important brain and body development of his life on the food that was designed for him - your milk.  Nursing for at least this long will help ensure better performance all through his school years.  Weaning may be fairly easy at this age... but then, so is nursing!  If you wanat to avoid weaning this early, be sure you've been available to nurse for comfort as well as for food.

IF YOUR NURSE FOR A YEAR, you will have saved enough money to buy a major appliance!  Your baby is now ready to try a whole range of new foods.  This year of nursing has given your child many health benefits that will last his whole life.  He will have a stronger immune system, for example, and is less likely to need orthodontia or speech therapy.  The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends nursing for at least one year to ensure the best possible nutrition and health for your baby.

IF YOU NURSE PAST ONE YEAR,  you will continue to provide the highest quality nutrition and superb protection against illness at a time when infections are common.  A toddler picks up everything!  he is eating a variety of table foods and has had time to form a solid bond with you - a healthy starting point for his growing independence.  Together you can work on the weaning process, progressing at a pace that he can handle.  A former U.S. Surgeon General has said, "it is a lucky baby... who continues to nurse until he's two."

IF YOU NURSE UNTIL HE OUTGROWS THE NEED,  you can feel confident that you ahve met your baby's physical and emotional needs in the most natural and healthy way possible.  In cultures where there is no pressure to wean, children tend to nurse for at least 2 years.  The World Health Organisation and UNICEF strongly encourages breastfeeding through toddlerhood.  Your milk provides antibodies and other protective substances as long as you continue to nurse.  Families of nursing toddlers often find that their medical bills are lower for years to come.

Children who were nursed long-term tend to be very secure.  Nursing can help ease both of you through the tears, tantrums, and tumbles of toddlerhood, while illnesses are milder and easier to handle.  It is an all-purpose mothering tool that you won't want to be without!  Don't worry that your child will nurse forever.  All children eventually wean, no matter what yo do, and there are more nursing toddlers around than you might guess.

WHETHER YOU NURSE FOR A DAY OR FOR SEVERAL YEARS,  the decision to nurse your child is one you need never regret.  And whenever weaning takes place, remember that it is a big step for both of you.  If you choose to wean before your child is ready, be sure to do it gradually, and with love.

 (C) Diane Wiessinger, MS, IBCLC 136 Ellis Hollow Creek Road Ithaca, NY 14850