It's up to you and your baby to decide when you want to finish breastfeeding.
It's recommended that you breastfeed your baby exclusively (give them breast milk only) for the first six months of their life.
According to Rosie Dodds of the NCT (formerly National Childbirth Trust), this means women sometimes think they should breastfeed for six months and then stop.
However, breastfeeding still has lots of benefits for you and your baby after six months. It protects them from infections and there's some evidence that it helps them to digest solid foods. It also continues to provide the balance of nutrients your baby needs.
See other benefits of breastfeeding.
But breastfeeding is about more than just nutrition. It helps to reassure and comfort your growing baby, even when they're a toddler, and gives you a chance to sit down and relax. If you're comfortable breastfeeding there's no need to stop until you and your baby are ready.
If you aren't sure whether or not to continue with breastfeeding, you can contact the National Breastfeeding Helpline on 0300 100 0212.
Common reasons for stopping breastfeeding
Common reasons for stopping breastfeeding include sore or painful breasts, worrying that your baby is not getting enough milk, and lifestyle reasons (such as returning to work or going on holiday). Some women stop breastfeeding because they get pregnant again.
None of these things mean you have to stop breastfeeding if you don't want to.
Sore or painful breasts
Some women find breastfeeding uncomfortable, especially in the early days and weeks. Common problems include sore or cracked nipples and painful breasts.
These problems often happen when your baby is poorly attached to the breast. Your midwife, health visitor or a breastfeeding specialist can help you with positioning your baby and getting them properly attached.
See some self-help tips for sore nipples.
See more about positioning and attachment.
Not enough breast milk
Lots of women worry that they haven't got enough milk when in fact they have plenty to meet their baby's needs.
Your midwife, health visitor or breastfeeding specialist can also suggest ways to increase your milk supply if necessary. This could just mean making sure that your baby is well attached to the breast and that you are feeding often enough.
Going back to work
Going back to work doesn't necessarily mean that you have to stop breastfeeding.
"If your breast milk supply is well established, your work needn't impact on your milk supply for your baby," says Rosie from NCT. "You can either express at work and give your breastmilk to your child's carer or provide formula milk while you are away.
"If you continue breastfeeding outside of work hours you should be able to maintain your supply. Part-time working, which lots of new mothers opt for, can also help maintain breastfeeding."
"If your employer isn't familiar with the rules around breastfeeding and expressing in the workplace, it's worth sharing the ACAS guidance with them or contacting your union if you have one," she adds.
Read more about breastfeeding and returning to work.
Going on holiday
As with work, going on holiday doesn't mean that you have to give up breastfeeding. In fact, breastfeeding can be more convenient while you are away.
You don't need to worry about boiling water and sterilising feeding equipment. Plus, if you're flying, there's no need to worry about restrictions on carrying bottles or cups of formula through airport security checks.
Breast feeding also helps to equalise the pressure in your baby's ears on take-off or landing.
Getting pregnant again
If you get pregnant again while you are breastfeeding, it shouldn't affect your baby or the pregnancy. However, you may feel tired, and changes in your appetite and emotions can make breastfeeding more challenging.
In rare cases, women are advised to stop breastfeeding before getting pregnant again, particularly if they have previously had a miscarriage or premature labour.
This is because there is a possible risk the breastfeeding hormone oxytocin may cause contractions. It's worth speaking to your GP or health visitor before you make any decisions about stopping.
Don't be put off feeding an older baby and a newborn (tandem nursing). The more milk your babies take, the more your breasts produce, so it's perfectly possible to feed more than one baby.
Combining breast milk and formula
Some women decide to combine breastfeeding and formula milk rather than stopping breastfeeding completely. If you want to do this, it's best to wait until your milk supply is fully established. This makes it easier to introduce some formula feeds while continuing to breastfeed.
You can start by replacing one breastfeed each day with a bottle or – if your baby is over six months, a cup – of formula, instead.
See more about drinks and cups for babies.
Or you may find that expressing breastmilk helps if you want to increase your supply or you need someone else to feed your baby sometimes.
How to stop breastfeeding
There is no right or wrong way to stop breastfeeding. For lots of mothers and babies, stopping breastfeeding happens gradually as their child grows and eats more solid foods.
But Rosie says it's important that solid food shouldn't simply replace breastmilk: "There's evidence that breastmilk may play a part in helping a baby's digestive system to deal with their first solids," she says.
Once they are eating solids, babies continue to need breast or formula milk up to at least their first birthday. Cow's milk isn't suitable as a main drink for babies under one, although it can be added to foods, such as mashed potatoes.
Remember that you will need to introduce bottle feeding gradually and phase out breastfeeding rather than suddenly replacing one with the other, as your body will continue producing milk.
Rosie says: "The advantages to continuing to breastfeed while giving some formula are underestimated. Giving both can work very well.
"However, if your milk supply isn't well established and your baby is having lots of formula you may find that your body doesn't receive enough signals to produce the milk they need," she warns.
Babies breastfeed for comfort as well as food. Phasing out breastfeeding gently will give you and your baby time to get used to the idea. Stopping gradually will also help prevent problems like engorged breasts and mastitis.
"An effective way to reduce breastfeeding is to drop one feed at a time, usually a daytime feed," says Rosie. "There's no particular health reason for which feed you drop first, so it will usually be a case of how it fits in with your life. For example, some mothers may prefer to continue night feeds so their baby can still have the comfort at night."
If your baby is younger than one year, you will need to replace the dropped breastfeed with a formula feed from a bottle or (over six months) a beaker, instead. If your child is over one and having a variety of foods and drinks they won’t need a replacement feed.
"Once you and your baby are settled into a pattern of having one less breastfeed, possibly after 5-7 days, you can then think about dropping another one," says Rosie Dodds.
If you are trying to stop breastfeeding and having problems, you can get help and ideas from your health visitor or a breastfeeding specialist.
Restarting breastfeeding after stopping
Stopping breastfeeding doesn't always have to be permanent, but starting again may take a lot of time and not everyone will produce enough to meet their baby's needs. It depends partly on how well-established your milk supply was already.
Stimulating your breasts by expressing and offering the breast to your baby regularly can help stimulate your body to restart making milk. Skin-to-skin contact with your baby can promote lactation (milk production) too.
You can ask your midwife, health visitor or a breastfeeding specialist for help if you would like to re-start breastfeeding.
Breastfeeding older children
There's no reason why you shouldn't carry on breastfeeding your child into their second year and beyond. You and your toddler can carry on enjoying the benefits of breastfeeding for as long as you want.
Your toddler may also find breastfeeding comforting when they are ill or upset.