What is the worldwide average age to stop breastfeeding?
Views on breastfeeding around the world
When deciding whether to breastfeed, each new mother is influenced by her physical ability, personal beliefs, and cultural customs. But how much do attitudes differ when it comes to breastfeeding around the world?
Breastfeeding is an accepted part of everyday life for millions of women worldwide. The World Health Organization strongly endorses breastfeeding. However, many cultures differ in their attitudes towards breastfeeding; this includes how mothers breastfeed their baby and for how long. So, it’s useful to understand opinions about breastfeeding around the world. Expatica shares some facts for expat families.
- Breastfeeding is important, wherever you are
- Attitudes to public breastfeeding around the world
- Approaches to breastfeeding around the world
- The mother’s opinion is more important
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Breastfeeding is important, wherever you are
First, health professionals almost universally recognize breastfeeding as the best way to nourish a baby. A recent worldwide survey of pregnant women and new mums found that a majority felt breastfeeding is better than using infant formula; correspondingly, pregnant women feel guilty if they did not breastfeed their babies.
When it comes to the ideal length of time to breastfeed a baby, however, there was more variation. Most mothers in Brazil, China, Germany, Hungary, Mexico, the United Kingdom, and the United States feel six to 12 months is ideal. On the other hand, French mothers favored a shorter period of three to six months, while Turkish mothers felt it better to carry on for 12 to 24 months.
In every country surveyed, a sizable percentage (between 26–58%) of respondents felt that a two-year-old is too old to be breastfed. However, the WHO’s views on breastfeeding recommend that mothers should continue throughout the first two years of a baby’s life.
Attitudes to public breastfeeding around the world
The survey also revealed varying attitudes on public breastfeeding around the world, with 41% of mothers in France and 47% in China the most likely to find it an awkward experience. On the opposite end of the spectrum, only 7% of Hungarian mothers and 13% of Mexican mothers are uncomfortable breastfeeding in public. A large number of respondents in all of the countries (between 19–63%) believed it was natural to breastfeed in public.
Approaches to breastfeeding around the world
Many cultures have their own individual beliefs and customs when it comes to breastfeeding. Some of these are helpful to mothers and babies; others are fairly harmless; while others could potentially have a negative impact on a baby’s health.
Here are a few examples of cultural practices for breastfeeding around the world:
- In many countries, including India, there is a widespread belief that colostrum (the nutritionally-dense liquid produced by a mother immediately after her baby’s birth) is impure and dirty. As a result, parents prefer to dispose of the colostrum. The baby is then fed formula for the first few days of its life.
- Lebanese families often believe that a mother can pass a stomach ache onto her baby through her breastmilk. Similarly, many believe that eating foods such as cauliflower and cabbage can cause the nursing baby to develop gas and bloating.
- In predominantly Muslim countries, women often see breastfeeding as a religious duty; the Qu’ran specifies that babies should be breastfed by their mothers or a wet nurse for approximately two years. In the past, women often shared breastfeeding duties; relatives or neighbors with babies of a similar age shared nursing amongst themselves.
- Women in some areas of Kenya are advised not to breastfeed after a quarrel until they have undergone a ritual cleansing. In other regions of the country, mothers believe that breastfeeding in public makes the mother and child vulnerable to the evil eye.
- In Mongolia, breastmilk is considered so healthy and appetizing that even adults will occasionally indulge. It is not uncommon for a nursing mother to offer excess milk to her husband or another family member. In addition, elderly folks often drink it for medicinal purposes.
The mother’s opinion is more important
A woman’s approach to breastfeeding could depend on what country or culture she’s born into. Mothers in different countries encounter different messages and customs when it comes to breastfeeding. Ultimately, a mother’s personal preference, physical ability to breastfeed, increasing scientific awareness, global education, and access to either public or private health insurance also play a role.
Breastfeeding in the UK
Find out about breastfeeding rates in the UK and our work to improve them.
Breastfeeding: a public health issue
Breastfeeding is a highly emotive subject in the UK because so many families have not breastfed, or have experienced the trauma of trying very hard to breastfeed and not succeeding. The pain felt by so many parents at any implication that they have not done the best for their child can close down conversation. It is time to stop laying the blame for the UK’s low breastfeeding rates in the laps of individual women and instead acknowledge that this is a public health imperative for which the government, policy makers, communities and families all share responsibility.
UNICEF UK urges the UK and devolved governments to implement four key actions to create a supportive, enabling environment for women who want to breastfeed. Find out more about our Call to Action campaign.
Our Call to Action campaign asks UK governments to take key steps to enable mothers to breastfeed for as long as they wish.
Breastfeeding rates in the UK
In the UK we have some of the lowest breastfeeding rates in the world, with eight out of ten women stopping breastfeeding before they want to.
The last UK-wide Infant Feeding Survey was conducted in 2010, and we are calling on UK governments to reinstate this. Key findings were:
- Breastfeeding initiation: 81% (up from 76% in 2005)
- Exclusive breastfeeding at six weeks was 24% in England compared to 17% in Wales and 13% in Northern Ireland – see below for more recent survey results from Scotland
- Exclusive breastfeeding at three months: 17% (up from 13% in 2005)
- Exclusive breastfeeding at four months: 12% (up from 7% in 2005)
- Exclusive breastfeeding at six months (as recommended by the World Health Organization) remained at around 1%
- The rate of any breastfeeding at six weeks was 55% (rising from 48% in 2005), while at six months it was 34% (rising from 25% in 2005). These improvements coincided with a marked increase in engagement with the Baby Friendly Initiative.
In 2018 Scotland released results from its Maternal and Infant Nutrition Survey, highlighting marked improvements in breastfeeding rates – particularly the rise in breastfeeding at six months from 32% in 2010 to 43% in 2017. The results highlight the positive impact of a national infant feeding strategy, including supporting 100% of maternity and community services in Scotland to achieve Baby Friendly accreditation.
All about breastfeeding
Find out more about the benefits of a successful breastfeeding relationship
Improving UK breastfeeding rates
Improving the UK’s breastfeeding rates would have a profoundly positive impact on child health. For example, increasing the number of babies who are breastfed could cut the incidence of common childhood illnesses such as ear, chest and gut infections and save the NHS up to £50 million each year. Breastfeeding rates in comparable European countries, with similar population sizes and demographics, show that it is possible to increase rates with a supportive breastfeeding culture and the political will to do so.
A key aspect of improving breastfeeding rates is the provision of face-to-face, ongoing and predictable support to families across all public services, and social support in the local community. The Baby Friendly Initiative enables mothers to receive this help within healthcare services, delivering a holistic, child-rights based pathway for improving care. We provide the crucial impetus that busy health professionals need to raise standards, enabling them to prioritise what is best for each and every child above the pressures of tightening funds and staff numbers, and providing an achievable roadmap for improvement.
UNICEF, working in partnership with the WHO, is uniquely placed to deliver this life-saving work. We have the knowledge, credibility and infrastructure to work with an organisation the size of the NHS to put the standards in place to make a difference to children’s lives across the UK. For an outline of how Baby Friendly can impact long-term public health outcomes, see our Theory of change document on the About Baby Friendly page.
Commissioning Guidance for Infant feeding
A toolkit for Local Authorities to help support breastfeeding.
What Happens When You Stop Breastfeeding?
Your body experienced many changes when you started breastfeeding. Now that you’re nearing the end of this special period in your life, what changes can you expect?
From physical changes to your breasts to more intangible effects on your mood and emotions, it’s more than you may think. However, it can be an easier transition when you’re prepared and armed with some knowledge.
If you have questions about what happens when you stop breastfeeding, you’re not alone. In this article, we’ll go over some of the answers to help you through the changes.
- When stopping breastfeeding, milk production gradually decreases and may take 7-10 days to mostly dry up.
- Engorged breasts can happen as milk production slows; avoid expressing or pumping milk unless absolutely necessary for comfort.
- Emotions such as sadness may arise due to hormonal changes and the transition away from breastfeeding.
- Breast appearance may change, with some women experiencing saggy breasts as milk ducts and production systems shrink back to pre-pregnancy size.
Table of Contents
- When Should You Stop Breastfeeding?
- What Happens When You Stop Breastfeeding
- If You Have Any Questions
When Should You Stop Breastfeeding?
The decision to stop breastfeeding is highly personal, and the timing is different for everyone.
Some breastfeed until their child begins to eat solid food. Some continue into the toddler years. Some can choose when to stop, and some must end abruptly due to medical reasons or circumstances beyond their control.
Because of the many circumstances women face, it’s hard to set an exact milestone for when breastfeeding should stop for every woman. However, the American Academy of Pediatrics offers a goal to strive for that is best for babies (1) :
- Breastfeed exclusively for the first six months.
- Breastfeed alongside other foods until your baby turns one.
- Continuing to breastfeed after the age of one if both mother and baby are doing well with it.
Experts suggest the average age of weaning worldwide is 2.5 years. In some places, weaning happens much earlier; in others, babies breastfeed longer. Only you can decide when it’s best to stop breastfeeding your child.
What Happens When You Stop Breastfeeding
If you’ve decided to stop breastfeeding, here are five changes you can expect to go through. However, every mom has a different experience, and it’s important to stay in touch with your doctor and lactation consultant if you’re worried about anything.
1. Drying Milk Supply
One of the most significant changes affects your milk supply. When you stop breastfeeding, your body naturally begins the process of stopping milk production. However, this process takes time.
The longer you’ve been producing milk, the longer it usually takes to dry up (2) . Hormones regulate the breastfeeding process. If they’ve been consistently running, it will take some time for the body to adjust.
Most moms see the bulk of milk gone within 7 to 10 days after stopping breastfeeding, especially if you’ve naturally been decreasing the number of feedings you do each day.
You may still be able to express a little milk for weeks or even months.
Any stimulation to your breasts — sometimes even as simple as water running over them in the shower — can potentially prolong the process of milk drying up.
Michelle Roth, BA, IBCLC
2. Engorged Breasts
A slow weaning process is your most comfortable option to stop your milk production gently, but you may still experience feelings of fullness and tightness, especially at first.
Avoid expressing or pumping milk at this time. If you have extreme pain, express a little milk just to comfort, but do not drain your breasts completely. Doing so triggers your body to create more milk, lengthening the drying-up process.
3. Feeling Sad
Because your hormones change when you stop breastfeeding, you may experience some heightened emotions, including feelings of sadness.
This occurs because of the lowering levels of prolactin and oxytocin in your body, but it’s also natural to struggle with this change (3) . You’ve put so much work into breastfeeding, and if you use it as a bonding tool, it can be hard to let go. And seeing your baby growing into toddlerhood can be bittersweet.
Build other bonding experiences with your baby as you stop breastfeeding to help keep your mood up and make the transition easier.
4. Saggy Breasts
It’s OK to wonder about the appearance of your breasts. Many women worry their breasts will become extra saggy after breastfeeding. Whether you breastfeed or not, your breasts will likely be changed from before pregnancy. Breastfeeding is just one of many factors to determine what your breasts will look like. Others include genetics, weight, health habits, and age (4) .
Some women don’t have saggy breasts after they stop breastfeeding, but some do. It occurs because the milk production system inside your breasts, namely the milk ducts and milk itself, stretches out the breast as it fills. Once the system returns to its pre-pregnancy size after milk production stops, the breasts may sag (5) .
While some moms may struggle with the new look, sagging breasts pose no medical threat.
5. Your Menstrual Cycle
Breastfeeding affects fertility, though to what degree is as varied as there are moms. Studies have found women who breastfeed exclusively often don’t have their periods. This is because nursing at such regular intervals stops the hormones responsible for menstruation from activating (6) .
If this has been your experience, be prepared for your menstrual cycle to return once you start weaning and stop breastfeeding altogether. It may also cause a peak in your fertility levels. Even if you bleed while breastfeeding, your body may not have ovulated, producing an egg. If you are not ready to become pregnant again, be sure you are using contraception.
If You Have Any Questions
Do you have more questions about the changes you’ll experience when you stop breastfeeding? We suggest working with your doctor or a lactation consultant. Just as lactation consultants can help you begin nursing, they can also help you as you stop.
Trust your body. If you feel highly unusual or notice any changes in your physical or mental health, don’t be afraid to talk to someone about it.