How long does my baby need to nurse in order to receive the benefits of breastmilk?

Ask Anne…

Question: How long do you need to nurse in order for your baby to receive the brain-growth and immunological benefits of breast milk? And, though I’m sure it varies widely from mom to mom, how seldom can you nurse and still maintain a milk supply? Is it possible to maintain a steady-state of milk, or does the supply gradually, inevitably diminish?

I got lucky when I returned to work driving a truck and I  have semi-regular hours. My husband keeps him during the day. I get home every night late, and I can nurse him as he wants to during the night to make up for not being home all day. I can only pump once per day, so Samuel gets ten ounces of my milk for the next day, rounded out with formula, and is eating a good variety of solid foods.

He’s gaining weight well and seems happy with life. I’m just wondering how long we can continue like this ’cause I worry on days when I’ve eaten poorly, or been gone longer than usual and missed a critical nursing or two. It seems my milk supply really dips in response.

Answer: There really is no black or white answer to your question, because there are so many factors to consider. Every drop of breast milk that your baby receives is beneficial, and it sounds like you have worked out a nursing schedule that works for you in your individual situation.

In a perfect world, all mothers would be able to stay at home with their babies and nurse them on demand, and they would never need to use bottles or formula. However, in today’s real world, this just isn’t possible for the many mothers who have to return to work to provide financial stability for their families, or those who absolutely love their jobs.

In response to your concern about your milk supply and how long you can maintain it, there are no definite answers to that either. A lot depends on your milk production capacity, the type of pump you are using, and your baby’s willingness to nurse as your supply fluctuates. Some babies love to nurse and will continue even after your supply drops significantly, and others will gradually wean as your supply diminishes. Babies who like to nurse for comfort and to go to sleep tend to nurse longer than babies who are “self soothers” (ie, they use a pacifier, thumb, or security blanket to put themselves to sleep or when they are upset) tend to wean earlier than babies who use the breast as a pacifier.

I would encourage you to try to provide your baby with as much breast milk as you can by pumping, and to nurse as often as you can when you are together. You really can’t do much more than that given your work schedule. It sounds like he is happy, healthy, and thriving on a combination of expressed milk, formula, and solids, and he is definitely receiving immunological and psychological benefits from any amount of breast milk that he receives.

I hope that you will continue nursing your baby for as long as possible, and try not to stress too much about the amount of milk he receives. He is a lucky little boy to have a mom who cares enough to make the effort to continue nursing him in spite of the challenges you have had to overcome, and you are doing a great job as a mother.

Anne Smith, IBCLC
Breastfeeding Basics

About Anne Smith, IBCLC

Anne Smith, IBCLC
As the mother of six wonderful breastfed children, three perfect breastfed grand babies, and an IBCLC (International Board Certified Lactation Consultant) with over twenty-five years experience in lactation counseling, I can offer you professional support, as well as information and advice based on my personal experiences over the years.

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