In America and most other western countries, it is generally accepted that a mom will stop breastfeeding her child at six months. Anything after this is considered strange by some.
You may have experienced this yourself – the raised eyebrows, the scrunched-up faces, and the generally surprised tone that you may get from someone that has just found out you still breastfeed your one, two, or even three year old.
Some may even say that you are doing psychological or developmental harm to your child by breastfeeding for so long.
In this article, we are going to debunk all of the myths associated with extended breastfeeding and empower you to look beyond the judgment of others and make decisions that are in the best interest of you and your child above all else.
What Is Extended Breastfeeding?
When you continue breastfeeding beyond your child’s first birthday, you begin what is known as extended breastfeeding.
Your child now has teeth and can eat solid foods with no trouble, but they may continue to nurse out of habit and comfort.
I breastfed my baby until he was almost three! This was out of comfort more than anything else and was complimentary to the solids that he was eating as he got older.
Eventually, he just weaned off naturally and didn’t want it anymore. No-fuss, no sleepless nights, and a happy and healthy toddler ready for the next phase in his development.
How Long Should I Nurse?
The World Health Organization recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months – but there is no recommended age for when you should stop – the WHO advice states “up to two years and beyond.”
This is liberating from a health point of view for moms who want to keep breastfeeding.
Negative Effects of Extended Breastfeeding
Aside from the social stigma of breastfeeding an older child, there are none!
We will discuss this in more detail later in this article, but we first want to provide full details of the benefits of extended breastfeeding and that it will protect children far more than it could ever harm them.
Hopefull you will then feel empowered to make your own decision based on what you want.
Benefits Of Long Term Breastfeeding for Toddler
We have done another detailed post on the benefits of breastfeeding that goes into a lot of detail about breastfeeding in general.
While there is some overlap we have tried to focus only on those benefits that become more significant if you breastfeed past infancy.
Human milk composition and nutritional quality will adapt to your baby’s needs as they get older. This maximizes the nutritional benefits and ensures that breast milk continues to deliver developmental benefits.
Human milk 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.
Your child can develop a stronger immune system as they continue to receive antibodies from you to protect themselves against many viruses and diseases. This leads to lower mortality rates amongst breastfed children.
Fewer illnesses through the toddler years can also be a big help for your sanity and less disruptive to a normal lifestyle. Especially for a working mom!
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 and only increases for breastfed toddlers.
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
Lower Risk of Breast Cancer and Ovarian Cancer
For every 12 months that breastfeeding continues, it reduces breast cancer risk by 4.3%; likewise, a woman who has never breastfed increases her risk of ovarian cancer by 1.5 times.
In other words, the longer a woman breastfeeds, the more the risk for cancer development is reduced.
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.
Studies have also shown that a woman who breastfeeds for at least 12 months (either consecutive or cumulative) have a reduced risk of:
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Heart attack and cardiovascular disease
The significant health benefits for a mom are not broadly known and are unlikely to be a primary motivation for a mom to power through. But it is nice to know that there is just as much in prolonged lactation for you as there is for your child.
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 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.
How Common Is Extended Breastfeeding
Unfortunately, continued breastfeeding after infancy is not the social norm in America. However, it is a biological norm that is practiced in the vast majority of countries around the world.
In a study completed by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in 2011, 75% of U.S. mothers start breastfeeding, but only 44% continue until the age of 6 months.
Of this group, only 15% are exclusively breastfeeding at that point.
So, breastfeeding rates are low and continue to decline. Some opt for infant formula and complementary foods after infancy.
In comparison, mothers around the world typically allow their children to breastfeed for longer and wean gently – and not until the child is ready and no longer needs to nurse.
As a result, the natural weaning age globally is between 3 and 5 years old. Much higher than in the US with most children weaned off breastmilk before they reach their first birthday.
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.
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 which can turn moms off breastfeeding longer term.
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.
On the contrary, there is plenty of evidence that supports the important role that breastfeeding plays in the positive emotional development of a growing child:
- Extended breastfeeding can improve your child’s self-esteem.
- Promotes a strong bond with mom and teaches what a close relationship feels like.
- If weaning at their own pace they feel trusted and 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
As my son approached his third birthday he showed no sign of slowing down. I was concerned that it would be harder to wean him off and that the social adjustment would be just as hard as the physical.
However, after his third year, he just seemed to lose interest in feeding at any other time than at night.
Due to the 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 off 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.
Choose For Yourself
You and your child may decide that you want to continue nursing beyond infancy and that should be a choice between the two of you (assuming your milk flow continues regularly).
Even if this is not the cultural norm you have every right to do this.
You cannot do much about the opinions of others. But you can limit your exposure to them if you want to just remove that hassle from your life. Your toddler will have an increasing solid food intake and feeding sessions will be less often.
This allows you to better choose a time and place that suits you.
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. If extended breastfeeding is mutually desired then boob on!
The decision is yours. No one has the right to pressure or shame you into changing your mind.
Finally, it is worth recognizing that this article is very pro-breastfeeding and that not all moms can or want to breastfeed for more than a year postpartum.
This is a perfectly valid choice and you can provide a sufficient infant diet with high nutritional value through other means.