Science You Can Use: Do we accurately recall how long we breastfed our children?

If you’re breastfeeding now, do you think you’ll remember – to the month – when you weaned 20 years after the fact?  When it comes to breastfeeding, are we like mama elephants or Forgetful Jones?  The answer has big implications for breastfeeding research.

There are many vexing problems in breastfeeding research.  One is the definition of terms like “breastfeeding” and “exclusive breastfeeding.”  Another is that many retrospective studies rely on mothers’ recall of how long they breastfed.  This is important, because researchers are often trying to determine if breastfeeding for certain lengths of time is associated with health outcomes for mothers and babies.

Research to date has indicated that our memories are pretty accurate when it comes to time shortly after delivery.  A few small studies have shown that our long term memories aren’t as good.

But a new study from Norway is shedding more light on this question, and it looks like our memories are better than previously thought.

This study is the first the long term investigation of mothers’ recall of breastfeeding duration which used a large sample and where breastfeeding was common and practiced “long term” (an average of 6 months, but remember that this was in the 1980’s).

The research team carried out a prospective study which compared the complete medical records of mothers who responded to questionnaires sent to them 20 to 22 years later in 2008.  62% of the original participants returned the questionnaire, though for many of them the medical record data was incomplete so couldn’t be used for comparison.  The final comparison group was 374 mothers.

Here’s what they found:

Recorded and recalled breastfeeding duration was strongly correlated.  Nearly two thirds of women recalled their breastfeeding to within one month. Recall data showed a modest median overestimation of about 2 weeks.

Not bad, considering that this is 20 to 22 years after their children were born, don’t you think?

And our memories don’t appear to be clouded by subsequent children or influenced by our educational level.  The study found no difference in accuracy of memory based on mothers’ education or the number of children they had.  Tendency to over-report was only associated, after adjusting for other factors, with having introduced other foods by 4 months.

Why would mothers tend to over-estimate in our memories compared to what they reported at the time?  Errors of one month in either direction could be explained by rounding errors, the authors say.  And this makes sense:  Say you had the memory of a mama elephant and can recall that you breastfed for 4.5 months.  If you were asked twice, at 20 year intervals, to report that number in months, you may well round in one or the other direction.

There are some weaknesses here, such as the fact that the 32% of women who did not respond to the survey had slightly different background characteristics and may have had different recall of their breastfeeding duration.  And that breastfeeding beyond 13 months (which wasn’t common) wasn’t recorded in terms of months, so as long as those mothers recalled that they breastfed beyond that point their recall would be considered perfectly accurate.

But all in all, it’s an evidence that research based on mothers’ recall of their breastfeeding experiences might be pretty accurate after all.  And this suggests that research based on our memories may be more solid than previously thought.

Do you remember how long you breastfed each of your children?  Is your memory getting a little fuzzy as the years pass, or is it still pretty clear?





5 thoughts on “Science You Can Use: Do we accurately recall how long we breastfed our children?

  1. I remember vividly for how long each of my children nursed. We are in the beyond 13 months category and I remember to the week. It is such a treasured experience, it is no wonder it can be recalled so accurately.


  2. It’s pretty easy to remember when my last baby weaned – it was Christmas Day 2010 and he was nearly 3. My daughter is 19 months and still going strong, but I imagine that I’ll remember when she weans too. I forget about a lot of their milestones, but I think that’s one I’ll always remember. I think the oxytocin helps imprint memories like that in our brains – much like birth.


  3. I hope I will always remember and remind my daughter that she nursed 4 years 10 months….I am pretty sure the only reason she stopped was because I was 3-4 months pregnant at the time. Well, number #2 is still in utero and hoping for the same with this one 🙂


  4. So they seem to be measuring breastfeeding duration in months meaning most of the mothers in the study breastfed less than a year? I guess 20-22 years ago it was considered out-of-the-norm to breastfeed longer than 4 to 6 months.

    My two oldest are in their 20s now and I breastfeed the first for over a year and the second for 2 years. If I wanted to be exact (i.e., include the months), it would be 1 year 3 months for the first and 2 years 5 months for the second. My youngest I breastfed for 5 years…5 years 6 months to be exact! 🙂


  5. Interesting post, thank you! This issue came up recently for me, as I am currently doing research on breastfeeding. When creating a survey, we wondered if moms would remember how long they breastfed, how long they breastfed exclusively, etc. I’ve had moms assure me that they can definitely remember, even 20 years later.
    In working on secondary data analysis of national surveys, moms of children up to 5 years old are asked how long the child was breastfed. This data is used all the time to report on breastfeeding rates. What I’ve found in my own analysis is that there is actually a statistically significant difference in the month that the parent reported that they started feeding the baby formula and the age of the child when the parent was asked. This could mean that the further away the breastfeeding was, the more parents fudge their answer (or not, there could be other biases at play, this is just one possibility)!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s