Sunday, May 13, 2012

How Long Should You Breast-feed?

There’s been a lot of talk lately about a philosophy of parenting called attachment parenting. Promulgated largely by a popular child-rearing book called The Baby Book by Dr. William Sears, it’s three main tenets are: 1) breast-feeding, even for several years if mother and child wish 2) co-sleeping (baby sleeps with the parents) and 3) baby-wearing (babies are carried around in slings). The idea is that attachment parenting creates a strong bond between mother and child, so that ultimately the child grows up happier and better-adjusted.

Breast-feeding makes sense from a strictly biological perspective, whereas co-sleeping and baby-wearing confer largely psychological benefits. Breast-feeding provides partial immunity to the child against infectious diseases at a time when its immune system is not yet mature, and of course the nutritional value of breast-milk is essentially ideal. The bulk of the benefit of breast-feeding is in the first year, however. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that mothers breast-feed exclusively for six months, and then begin to supplement breast-feeding with solid foods until the end of the first year. Breast-feeding beyond the first year is thought to have more social and psychological benefit than biological benefit.

How do most mothers measure up? It’s complicated, because not all mothers have either the time or the inclination for attachment parenting or even for breast-feeding, especially if they work. According to the Centers for Disease Control, only 14% of babies are breast-fed exclusively until they are six months old, and only 33% are breast-fed exclusively for even the first three months. But before we get too worked up about these statistics, it’s worth remembering that although most children apparently are not breast-fed according to current recommendations, and there’s no convincing evidence that they are somehow disadvantaged as a result. So my suggestion would be that you follow the American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines if you can, but don’t feel too guilty if you can’t.

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