Happy New Year. We begin the year with discussing an extremely important question; how long should a mother breastfeed her baby?
This is one of the commonest questions I receive as a pediatrician. We have previously discussed the benefits of breastfeeding, where we noted that breast milk remains the ideal food for newborns and infants, providing all the nutrients needed for healthy development, and contains antibodies that help protect infants from common childhood illnesses such as diarrhoea and pneumonia. Breast milk contributes to a lifetime of good health.
Adolescents and adults who were breastfed as babies are less likely to be overweight or obese. They are less likely to have type-2 diabetes and perform better in intelligence tests. Breastfeeding also benefits mothers. Exclusive breastfeeding is associated with natural birth control in some mothers, with as high as 98 per cent protection in the first six months after birth. Breastfeeding reduces risks of breast and ovarian cancer later in life, helps women return to their pre-pregnancy weight faster, and lowers rates of obesity.
The length of time a mother should breastfeed her baby is becoming increasingly controversial, because most mothers have to go back to work at a time when the baby is still breastfeeding. The World Health Organisation recommends that breastfeeding is done exclusively for the first six months of life. At six months, solid foods, such as mashed fruits and vegetables, should be introduced to complement breastfeeding for up to two years or more.
Ideally, you should endeavour to breastfeed your child up to two years of age. Infant formula does not contain the antibodies found in breast milk, making prolonged breastfeeding very beneficial. Frequent feeding maintains breast milk supply. In mothers with HIV, who cannot afford a steady supply of infant formula, breastfeeding up to one year is the current recommendation, provided both the mother and the infant are given anti-retroviral drugs to prevent transmission of HIV to the child during breastfeeding period. Together, breastfeeding and anti-retroviral drugs can significantly improve the infants’ chances of surviving while remaining HIV uninfected.