In the lead-up to your little one’s arrival, it’s important to consider your feeding options. The nutritional benefits of breastfeeding will support your baby’s development, growth, and protect them against illnesses thanks to something we call ‘breast milk immunity’.
It’s important to choose a feeding style that works for you and your baby. Never feel pressured to breastfeed your baby if it doesn’t work for you both — it’s your journey, after all.
What months are most important for breastfeeding?
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), breastfeeding is recommended within the first hour of birth and should continue exclusively for the first 6 months of life. Our bodies are pretty amazing. The milk that mothers produce is full of the essential nutrients and antibodies little ones need to have a strong start in their development.
The benefits of breastmilk are particularly important during the first 6 months. However, many mothers will continue breastfeeding alongside solid foods for up to 12 months, and often far beyond.
So, how long do the benefits of breast milk last? Here are the benefits of breastfeeding by month:
Newborn: For the first few days after your baby's birth, your body will make colostrum a nutrient-rich ‘pre-milk’ that passes antibodies from you to your baby. Shortly after, your mature milk comes through, which contains protein, healthy fats, enzymes, vitamins, and more for healthy weight gain.
Weeks 4 to 6: Breast milk immunity gets to work during the first few weeks. Your little one will be more protected against many childhood illnesses and infections, and have a lower chance of experiencing digestive issues.
2 months: Feeding your baby by breast will continue to strengthen their immunity and provide essential nutrients. If your baby does get sick, their recovery may be quicker — your breastmilk knows when your baby is unwell because of the salvia transfer to the breast, which means it will tailor its properties to help fight the microbes. Impressive, huh?
3 to 4 months: Breast milk continues to support the digestive system as infants enter their third month of life. Additionally, it starts to build up a defense against allergens as they prepare to start solid foods in a few months' time.
6 months: Exclusively breastfeeding for 6 months means your baby will experience all the benefits of breastmilk before you gradually introduce them to solid foods. After this, combining breastmilk with their first solids (known as weaning) will ensure they’re continuing to receive all the nutrients they need as they grow.
9 months: As your weaning routine becomes well-established, continuing to combine solid meals with breast milk will support your baby’s health, which is particularly important when your baby is experiencing growth spurts, teething, and increased exposure to illness.
1 year: A whole year of breastfeeding can lower the chances of long-term conditions such as heart disease, asthma, and diabetes, and lower the chances of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).
1 year+: Breast milk continues to provide key nutrients even after your baby’s first birthday, with many mothers opting to continue breastfeeding into their second year.
If breastfeeding your baby exclusively isn’t the right choice for you, how about combination feeding? This allows parents to combine feeding types (formula in a bottle and either pumped milk in a bottle or directly from the breast) to find a flow that works best for them while still providing all the benefits of breastfeeding.
Does breastfeeding have benefits after 6 months?
Once you’ve reached 6 months of breastfeeding and started weaning, you may be considering how long to continue breastfeeding. The health benefits of breast milk don’t decrease as your little one gets older. In fact, beyond 6 months breast milk is just as important for their growth, development, and protection.
The benefits of breastfeeding after 6 months include:
Better digestion of solid foods: Continuing to breastfeed alongside the introduction of solid foods not only ensures good nutrition, but breast milk can help your baby with digestion.
Ongoing protection and immunity: Your breastmilk is jam-packed with antibodies, even after 6 months. This means as they become more active (and try to put everything in their mouths), your little one will remain strong enough to fight off infections.
Remaining a healthy weight: Breast milk is full of all the things your baby needs to continue growing, including healthy fats. When they first start weaning, breastmilk still provides essential calories that will ensure they’re gaining
The best approach for decreasing the amount you're breastfeeding is to look for signs from your child — for example, they seem less interested in breast milk or they’re sleeping through the night without waking to feed — although this will naturally start when solids are introduced.
If you still want your baby to receive the nutritional benefits of your breast milk but you (or they) would prefer to stop breastfeeding, you can give them pumped breast milk in a cup or bottle or mix it in with some of their puréed food.
At what age breastfeeding is no longer beneficial?
As with many factors during your baby’s early years, there’s no definitive guidance as to when breastfeeding will stop being beneficial: every baby (and every mom) is different, and you should stop breastfeeding altogether only when the time is right.
The World Health Organization recommends continuing to breastfeed for up to 2 years or beyond, though many moms are comfortable giving up breastfeeding after the first year. Breastmilk will not stop being beneficial after this period, but you may have lifestyle reasons for wanting to stop feeding from the breast — going back to full-time work, for instance.
Sometimes, of course, it might be necessary to stop breastfeeding earlier than planned, perhaps because of a medical issue or a low milk supply. In this case, you might consider using a breast pump such as Elvie Pump, so that you can continue to give your baby that nutrient-rich breast milk — even if it’s not straight from the breast.
Does pumped breast milk have antibodies?
Pumped breast milk and milk given to a baby straight from the breast contain different organisms, one study suggested. Researchers studied the milk of 393 new mothers and found that the method of breastfeeding was a significant factor in the milk’s microbiota (the collection of microorganisms in the milk). Pumped milk does still contain beneficial microorganisms, but at lower levels.
This doesn’t mean pumped milk is not beneficial – it still contains different nutrients to formula, and the researchers say that more research is needed to determine the impact of feeding methods on babies.
Where you can, our advice would be to continue providing breast milk to your baby — whether that’s from the breast or expressed via a pump — at least for the first year, as this will provide ample benefits to their long-term health and reduce their chance of illness.
What are the benefits of breast milk for your baby?
Breastfeeding has several health benefits for your baby, including:
A reduced risk of diseases such as bacterial meningitis, leukemia, and type 2 diabetes.
A stronger immune system (thanks to breast milk antibodies), which will help your little one fight off infections.
A reduced chance of your baby experiencing digestive issues, particularly as they start weaning.
Healthy weight gain, thanks to a combination of proteins, healthy fats, enzymes, and vitamins.
Skin-to-skin contact, which helps to build a strong emotional bond between mom and baby.
What are the benefits of breastfeeding for mom?
Of course, while breastfeeding is good for your baby, there are ample benefits for you as a breastfeeding or chestfeeding parent, too. Just as breastfeeding your baby for longer is often better for their health, the longer you breastfeed, the more health benefits you’ll enjoy. These benefits include:
Faster postpartum recovery — the oxytocin in your body increases during breastfeeding, which encourages uterine contractions and reduces bleeding. This helps the uterus return to its previous size.
Lower risk of several diseases and conditions such as breast cancer, ovarian cancer, osteoporosis, high blood pressure, and type 2 diabetes.
A reduced risk of postpartum depression or anxiety, as oxytocin has an antidepressant effect.
Added convenience when compared to formula feeding — you can feed at any time, with no need for boiling, mixing, cooling, or sanitizing. It’s also cheaper.
Weight loss — breastfeeding can burn up to 500 calories per day, which can gradually help you to lose weight after pregnancy as long as you maintain a healthy lifestyle.
Improved sleep — the oxytocin and other hormones released when you breastfeed can help mother and baby get to sleep quicker (in fact, breastfeeding moms might get up to 45 minutes more shut-eye).
Skin-to-skin contact, which benefits mom too by helping her bond with her baby.
There are many myths about breastfeeding, but the health benefits of breastfeeding for you and your baby are undeniable. As you continue to breastfeed, and even as you begin the weaning process, you’ll discover that the benefits remain as your baby grows. Only you can decide when the time is right to stop breastfeeding, of course, but there’s ample evidence to recommend breastfeeding for at least the first year of your little one’s life.