I’m well aware of the benefits of breastfeeding. I’m a nutritionist and a mama myself. So I get that breast milk is an incredibly nourishing and adaptable food, and that breastfeeding can be a beautiful way to bond with your baby.
But when I saw the updated American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommendation to breastfeed for 2 years, I wasn’t sure what to think. On one hand, I did breastfeed my first son for 2 years, and I’m about 1.5 years in with my second son. On the other hand, I know how much effort, support, and pure luck it took to make it 2 years.
Breastfeeding for 2 years is far from the norm.
Data from 2019 shows that 55% of infants in the US receive any breast milk at 6 months. About 36% of US babies are still receiving some breast milk by 12 months, and only 14% by 18 months.
It takes a lot to make breastfeeding work over the long term.
It’s just simply not a choice that is available to all women. And while it might be ideal, it's often not realistic.
So I started reflecting. Here are all the things that allowed me to breastfeed for 2 years.
I work remotely in a breastfeeding friendly environment
Breastfeeding and pumping are time consuming. For many women, going back to work or staying at home with other kids and responsibilities makes it difficult to make the time to breastfeed or pump.
With both babies, I’ve worked at home, with childcare in my home, and in an environment where feeding a baby while on a call isn’t just accepted, it’s encouraged. While I wish this environment was the norm, I am fully aware that it is not. If I had to pack up a pump every day and lock myself in a room to pump and pack bottles multiple times a day, and then come home, do dishes, and do it all over again (and again), I’m not sure how long I’d last.
I have access to free lactation support
There are so many challenges that come with breastfeeding, and they change by stage. Latch issues, distracted babies, biting, supply, and more.
My health insurance includes lactation support at no cost to me. I have access to a phone line with International Board Certified Lactation Consultants (IBCLCs), and can request an in-home visit at any time. I’ve been fortunate to not have any major issues, but I’ve still called for lactation support on multiple occasions with both kids. And having a supportive person who can listen and give me advice and encouragement is huge. For many, quality lactation support is a significant challenge to access.
I have a solid supply
Struggles with milk supply is a big reason many mamas stop breastfeeding. Oftentimes, these struggles start when baby has issues latching, or when mama goes back to work and isn’t able to nurse on demand like she could when at home on leave. (You can see how these issues start to compound, right? Lack of lactation support and/or lack of flexibility in work can impact supply, which can impact ability and desire to breastfeed.)
I have been extremely fortunate with both babies to have a solid supply. In fact, I have been an overproducer with both boys, so I’ve donated over 15,000 ounces to date. I am extraordinarily fortunate that supply has never been a source of stress for me.
I don’t require any medications
It isn’t uncommon for women to have to take medications for certain health conditions. Unfortunately, some of these medications aren’t compatible with breastfeeding. So, women sometimes get to a point where they decide to take care of herself so that she can best care for her babies. And that means starting medication and weaning their little one. It can be a tough decision that sometimes comes with feelings of the obnoxious but very real mom guilt.
I have a supportive partner
Breastfeeding and pumping are a lot of work. They are time consuming, they can be messy, and they can lead to some big emotions. Breastfeeding requires support. So if a partner is in the picture, they really need to show up for the journey. And if a partner is not in the picture, it makes the process that much more work for mama - both physically and emotionally.
My husband always left decisions on how long to breastfeed up to me. He helped tremendously in the early days with both babies by getting up with me at night to first change our babies, and then was ready when I was done feeding to rock back to sleep if needed. Support in these demanding early days when establishing the breastfeeding relationship was huge.
Even still, many months postpartum, my husband washes pump parts and puts them back together for me, hooking them up to my pump so it's ready for me every night. Taking these little burdens off my plate makes the whole process easier and more sustainable.
I have (enough) patience
Breastfeeding requires a ton of patience. I can’t say I was always patient. There are times I felt like I would never again have any concept of personal space. I’ve been bitten, my shirt has been tugged when I didn’t want it to be, I’ve been a human jungle gym. Yes, there are a lot of sweet moments, but it takes patience, and sometimes I do wonder if it's worth it to keep going.
I also had to have patience to get pregnant again, as my cycle didn’t return until after my first fully weaned. We were ready for a second baby, but neither me nor my first son were quite ready to wean. So we waited.
The Bottom Line
In reflecting, it’s kind of astounding. There are so many factors that play into a breastfeeding relationship. For many people, and for many reasons, two years just isn’t realistic.
I understand the recommendation, and I feel extremely grateful for my experience, but I can’t help but be frustrated at the thought of how many things had to line up for me to make it 2 years. It’s simply not realistic for so many women, and that’s not fair.
More support is needed for mamas, so I’ll start with some for you. From one mama to another, know that whatever works for you and your baby is what’s best for you and your baby.
Hillary Bennetts is a nutritionist, mom of 2 boys, and Needed’s head of content