Gill O’Connor, Infant Feeding and Breastfeeding Development Coordinator: 

Sustained breastfeeding and returning to work

How long should I breastfeed for? The simple answer is ‘For as long as you want to’. Eight out of ten mothers sadly give up before they wish to for a variety of reasons, including the belief that they had insufficient milk, returning to work or the demands of family.

The World Health Organization recommends exclusive breastfeeding (i.e. no other fluids or solids) for six months and then continued breastfeeding combined with solid foods for 12-24 months or as long as mother and baby desire. If the decision is taken to continue to breastfeed into toddlerhood there may be barriers to overcome as society is not used to seeing babies breastfed into toddlerhood. The UK continues to have an entrenched bottle feeding culture with most babies being bottle fed at some point during the first year of life.

Why continue to breastfeed? You may just want to continue simply because you and your baby are enjoying it. However there are other benefits too which many people are not aware of, some of which are discussed below.

Not only are the protective benefits of breastfeeding important in the first weeks, but research has also shown this protection continues to have a positive impact on your child’s health for as long as you continue to breastfeed (and for many years afterwards!). If you continue to breastfeed into toddlerhood then some studies show that this protection passed on through your breastmilk actually increases in concentration in the second year.

Did you know?

Breastfeeding also helps protect babies against becoming overweight or obese, meaning they are less likely to develop diseases like diabetes in the future. This is because breastfed babies can regulate and pace their feeds as opposed to babies that are formula fed. If you are bottle feeding, whether expressed breastmilk or formula, your health professional will have discussed responsive feeding with you or you can find it in your PCHR (Red Book).

Breastmilk is a ‘living food’ and has the ability to change during a feed or during the day, it also changes over the weeks and months and even becomes more ‘watery’ so can keep a baby hydrated in hot weather.

Our appetite is not so good when we are ill and this is no different for babies.  Breastfeeding provides a source of comfort, fluids and nutrition and small frequent feeds keep your baby comforted and hydrated.

Breastfeeding is an amazing way to give a growing baby the firm foundation for a healthy life. However, mothers may also receive protection from breast and ovarian cancers, reduced risks from diseases such as lupus, diabetes, and arthritis, and may have faster weight loss after pregnancy and less uterus bleeding. Breastfeeding also helps to protect against osteoporosis. This is because while breastfeeding, bone mineral density across your whole body may decrease by around 1-2%, but when breastfeeding stops, many mothers will actually have a higher bone mineral density than before they started.

Mothers that return to work or study may find it difficult to sustain breastfeeding, but with support, the right advice and acceptance from their employer or place of study, it may well be possible to continue for as long as they wish.

Before you return to work make a plan with your family, your employer and your child care provider. Support of health professionals, statutory and voluntary agencies can give you further advice [link to contacts listed at the bottom of the page].

Think about how you can maximise the breastmilk you give. This will mean being realistic about your situation and what is achievable for you as a family and the work that you do.

Once you have established breastfeeding first, then:

  • Work out a plan depending on:
    • nature of work
    • hours of work
    • child care
  • and find out about:
    • employment rights
    • expressing options
    • storage of breastmilk

If you feel pressured to give up before you are ready, speak to someone who will support you in your decision-making whether that be a friend, health professional or a breastfeeding support line.

Look out for my next blog, where I will be discussing expressing milk.

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