Extended Breastfeeding: Tearing Down the Stigma of Nursing an Older Child

Congratulations! You made it! After enduring the sacrifice of your time and your body, your little one has grown from a baby to a toddler, now having reached their first birthday.

Perhaps every moment has been a joy; perhaps there have been some difficulties. Either way, you have accomplished a great feat and you’re ready to move on to the next stage.

So, what exactly is that going to be? If your child breastfed throughout their entire first year you may be thinking that it is now time to wean.

But, what if your baby isn’t ready?

What if you aren’t ready?

You may be wondering what is normal for a child this age, and how to transition to the next phase in their life.

The good news is that there is no normal. You DO have the option to continue breastfeeding, and there are some great benefits that come along with it for you and your baby.

extended breastfeeding

What Is Extended Breastfeeding?

When you continue breastfeeding beyond your child’s first birthday, you begin what is known as extended breastfeeding.

Your little one now has teeth and can eat solid foods with no trouble, but they may continue to nurse out of habit and comfort.

How Long Should I Nurse?

There is no recommended age to discontinue breastfeeding.

Personally, I have known mothers that have weaned at a year old. About the time their child was able to start pulling the neckline of their shirt down to try and get to the food source.

I have also known some to continue until their child was almost three years old.

While breastfeeding will probably not become a part of your child’s teenage years, it can continue as long as mom and baby are interested.

What Is Recommended?

It is a common recommendation that a mother should exclusively breastfeed for the first six months of her baby’s life.

A child’s brain development and nutrition are greatly influenced during these months, and breastmilk has been shown to have the greatest benefits.

After the first six months, the recommendations may vary for the length of breastfeeding.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) recommend breastfeeding for at least the first year.

The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends the first two years, even if it is only complementary with solid foods.

However, these are minimum recommendations and you can continue beyond this point if you choose to do so.

psychological effects of breastfeeding toddlers

Benefits Of Long Term Breastfeeding for Toddler

Quality Nutrition

Just as your milk changes and adapts to your baby’s needs when they are young, it continues to do so as they get older. It provides them with the essential vitamins and nutrients they need to continue growing big and strong.

There is no age where breastmilk becomes nutritionally insignificant for your child.

Strengthen Immune system

Your child can develop stronger an immune system as they continue to receive antibodies from you to protect themselves against many viruses and diseases (1).

Breast milk is also proven to be healthier than alternative drinks you can give your baby like juice and cow’s milk, and can be used as a supplemental drink along with water.

Improved Brain Development

White matter has been strongly linked to cognition and IQ, and a 2011 study sought to validate how breast milk can mediate cognitive function by influencing brain growth.

It was observed that white matter was more prominent than grey matter in the brain of breastfed babies. The effects were most notable in boys.

Calms your Baby

No matter what the situation, as soon as my son would latch on he would calm down immediately and feel very comfortable.

This made it very easy to avoid unnecessary tantrums, get him to sleep, and just keep him in a happy frame of mind.

Over time the feedings became less frequent as he grew his independence. But he always knew that he could nestle in with mommy whenever he wanted to.

Benefits Of Long Term Breastfeeding for Mom

Health

Studies have shown that a woman who breastfeeds at least 12 months (either consecutive or cumulative) can be protected from various diseases.

It has been shown that the risk of breast and ovarian cancer can be reduced with continued breastfeeding.

While it cannot be said for sure what breastfeeding does to help, it is believed that the changes in the tissues caused by breastfeeding or the suppression of estrogen may be responsible for the prevention of these common cancers.

Extended breastfeeding has also been shown to potentially lower the risk of rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes, and certain heart conditions.

Lower Risk of Postpartum Depression

Having that designated quiet time to be with your baby can also be valuable for your own state of mind. Especially if you are suffering from the baby blues or postpartum depression.

That closeness you feel can help you re-calibrate your mind and make you feel more in control of the care your baby receives.

It can also give you some assurance that your bond is growing and that you can express your love in a way that only you can.

And while this may sound obvious on the surface, remember that it is a time when your hormones are fluctuating and you may not be thinking logically. So anything to allow you to feel calm, happy, and that you are doing a good job is worth paying attention to.

Accelerate Weight Loss

Producing breast milk burns a lot of calories! As a result, your average daily caloric burn will increase by 300-500 calories per day when you are exclusively breastfeeding your child.

Over time this is likely to drop, these are still extra calories that you are burning over and above your regular daily energy requirements.

The Journal of Women’s Health conducted a study into found that the benefits of extended breastfeeding can last up to a full decade.

The testing found that women who breastfed for over six months had a lower BMI, blood pressure, as well as a smaller waist and hip circumference.

extended breastfeeding stigma

How Common Is Extended Breastfeeding

Breastfeeding has become less and less common in the western world.

As of a study done by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in 2011, 75% of U.S. mothers start out nursing their babies, but only 44% continue until the age of 6 months.

Of this group, only 15% are exclusively breastfeeding at that point regardless of recommendations by doctors and health organizations.

So, the number of mothers who choose to participate in extended breastfeeding are even less.

In comparison, mothers around the world typically allow their child to breastfeed for longer. They tend to wean gently. And not until the child is ready and no longer needs to nurse.

As a result, the average age globally for weaning is between 3 and 5 years old.

Out of 52 countries, only two weaned before the age of 1 year, the U.S. included.

Perhaps women in the U.S. stop for lifestyle reasons. It can be uncomfortable and time consuming, and if you are returning to work then keeping up with the demands can be very difficult.

There is also a cultural shift in places like the USA where breastfeeding is becoming increasingly controversial.

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Why The Stigma around Extended Breastfeeding?

Part of the reasoning behind why the United States has such a low number of breastfeeding mothers is due to the stigma behind breastfeeding in general.

Women’s breasts have been highly sexualized, and, as a result, people cannot look past this to see them for what they are supposed to be: the means of feeding a child.

To some, the sight of a mother nursing in public has become shocking and revolting. This causes some to have to unfairly endure hard looks from passersby.

If this stigma exists, and women are encountering harsh words for choosing to do right by their children, how much more will they face when they are seen nursing their toddlers in public?

Many may think that a child running up to their mother wanting to nurse for comfort after they’ve hurt themselves at the park is a bit too extreme.

Others may think that continuing to breastfeed an older child prevents them from becoming independent as they continue to rely on Mom, or that mothers are catering to their children and doing them a disservice.

There is also a firmly entrenched myth that extended feeding leads to sagging of the breasts.

Studies have shown that a number of other lifestyle factors contribute far more to this sagging than breastfeeding does.

One of the most prominent being the effects of aging – something none of us can stop.

“Why Do We Have To Stop?”

Psychological Effects Of Breastfeeding

Perhaps the first thought that comes to mind when you hear about extended breastfeeding is the potential for long-lasting psychological effects on children.

They retain more memories as they grow, and so if they continue nursing at an older age, they may remember in the future and be embarrassed or mentally traumatized.

As of now, there is no evidence to show that extended breastfeeding has any negative psychological effects on a child.

There are many cases that point to the contrary.

It has been shown that extended breastfeeding can do wonders for your child’s self-esteem.

When they are permitted to nurse as needed, their bond with their mother grows stronger and teaches them what a close relationship feels like.

Then, as they are allowed to wean at their own pace, they feel trusted, confident that they can make decisions for themselves.

Extended breastfeeding can also help your child become more independent, even though it may seem that the opposite would be true.

By building that relationship and trust with their mothers, children begin to realize that she will always be there when needed.

On the other hand, children who have independence forced upon them may be wary and untrusting, due to the fact that they don’t know who they can rely on.

Is it harder to Wean a Toddler

This was my biggest concern when late in my son’s two year old year he was showing no sign of slowing down on the breast milk. He seemed to love it just as much as when he was an infant!

But when he turned three he just seemed to lose interest in feeding any other time than at night.

Due to my limited size of our living space, we were co-sleeping for a long time – another aspect of parenting that is stigmatized and people love to voice an opinion on – so he would latch on and as he fell asleep.

I noticed after a while that he was not actually sucking much, if at all. My body also responded to this dip in demand and started to produce less milk.

This became an outward spiral that eventually led to him stopping altogether.

I feel so much better about the weaning process now that it was able to unfold naturally. I had heard so many stories of back to back to back sleepless nights of constant crying. That was a luxury that I just didn’t have.

extended nursing

Set Yourself Up For Success

You and your child may decide that you want to continue nursing past their first birthday. As long as you and your baby are on the same page, and your milk flow continues regularly, you can do it.

If you are afraid of the comments or stares you may receive, you can make a plan to avoid them. Set a time that you nurse, which is easy to do due to the fact that your child is eating mostly solid foods at this point.

You can then adapt your routine around this time so you are always at home for the feeding before you go out.

While it may seem like hollow advice to say don’t worry about what others think, chances are that you have had others imposing their views on what you should be doing as a parent since the day your pregnancy was announced.

So hopefully you have developed a thick skin by now.

At the end of the day, some people will judge your choices no matter what you do. So always do what is best for yourself, and your baby.

The decision is yours. No one has the right to pressure or shame you into changing your mind.

For those who are able to commit, it truly is the best thing you can do for your child.

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