When you start breastfeeding, you probably don’t have a timeline in mind of how long you’re going to do it. You’re just trying to make it through the sore nipples, sleeplessness, and marathon nursing sessions. Likely, your main goal is to get the hang of breastfeeding; and stay sane in the process.
But then you hit your stride. Your baby has its latch down, and you begin to get into a nursing routine. For many, breastfeeding eventually becomes second nature, and you may start to enjoy those times that you can finally sit down and snuggle and feed your little one.
If you’ve gotten to a place where breastfeeding is working well for you and your baby, you might be starting to wonder: When am I supposed to stop? You may have even heard about something called “extended breastfeeding” or asked what it was like to breastfeed an older baby or toddler.
As you ponder the idea of nursing beyond the first few months or even past the first year, you’re probably full of questions. So many questions. That’s normal. And you’ve come to the right place because we’ve got answers.
Online baby product directory at My Baby Nursery.
Breastfeeding for longer than one year is often called extended breastfeeding. However, to call it extended breastfeeding, it sounds as if breastfeeding after a year is considered longer than usual. It’s not, and only in our Western society is it thought of that way. Breastfeeding beyond a year is entirely normal, and in many other cultures, it’s not unusual for a mother to breastfeed her child for two years, three years, or even longer.
How Long Should You Breastfeed?
You should breastfeed your baby for as long as you and your child want to continue breastfeeding. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months and the continuation of breastfeeding along with the introduction of solid foods throughout your baby’s first year. After one year, the AAP recommends breastfeeding for as long you and your baby wish to do so.
There is no upper limit to the duration of breastfeeding and no evidence of psychological or developmental harm from breastfeeding into the third year of life or longer.
Is Breastfeeding Beyond Infancy Recommended?
Exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months after birth is recommended — and breastfeeding combined with solid foods until at least age 1. After that, breastfeeding is recommended as long as you and your child wish to continue.
Breastmilk During the First Year
Breastmilk contains all the nourishment needed to promote average healthy growth and development in babies in their first six months of life and remains the most critical food during their first year. Babies weaned from breastmilk before their first birthday will need to be given infant formula. Please consult your maternal and child health nurse for further information on this.
Infant formulas are generally not necessary after the first 12 months, as your child should receive an extensive range of family foods, including dairy products.
What Are the Benefits of Breast-Feeding Beyond Infancy?
The benefits of breastfeeding beyond infancy for a child include:
Breast milk is considered the gold standard for infant nutrition. There’s no known age at which breast milk is supposed to become nutritionally insignificant for a child.
As long as you breastfeed, the cells, hormones and antibodies in your breast milk will continue to bolster your child’s immune system.
The benefits of breastfeeding beyond infancy for a mother include:
Reduced Risk of Certain Illnesses
Breastfeeding for 12 months or more cumulatively in life has been shown to reduce the risk of breast cancer, ovarian cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes.
What Role Does Breast Milk Play in an Older Baby’s Diet?
It depends on how much breast milk your child is drinking.
After age 1, a child might continue regularly drinking a moderate amount of breast milk. As a result, breast milk will continue to be a source of nutrients for him or her. Other children, however, might use solid foods to meet their nutritional needs and want only small amounts of breast milk. If you have questions about your child’s diet or the role breast milk might play in it as he or she grows, talk to your child’s doctor.
Will Breast-Feeding Beyond Infancy Make the Weaning Process More Difficult?
Not necessarily. It’s often easiest to begin weaning when your child initiates the process — which might be sooner or later than you expect.
Weaning often begins naturally at about age six months, when solid foods are typically introduced. Some babies begin to gradually transition from breast milk and seek other forms of nutrition and comfort closer to age 1. Others might not initiate weaning until their toddler years when they become less willing to sit still during breastfeeding.
The term “extended breastfeeding” has a different meaning depending on who you are, where you live, and who you ask.
In some cultures, it’s perfectly normal to breastfeed well past the first year of life, so the idea of breastfeeding a baby past 12 months isn’t “extended” at all.
According to the CDC, about 36% of babies are still breastfeeding at 12 months, while about 15% are still doing so by 18 months. However, you’ll find that many people think breastfeeding past the minimum suggestions, or even the first few months, is extended breastfeeding.
Most major health organizations recommend nursing your baby for a minimum of 12 months, but many health professionals recommend even longer than that.
Some mothers and babies enjoy breastfeeding so much they are in no hurry to stop. Family members and friends may feel uncomfortable about it, but don’t give in to pressure if you and your child are happy. It is not unusual for children up to four years of age to continue to be breastfed.
It can be helpful to have information to give your family and friends about why you have decided to keep breastfeeding. This may include information about the continued health benefits, security and comfort for your child.
Benefits of Extended Breastfeeding
All of the health and developmental benefits of breastfeeding continue for your child for as long as you nurse. And, many of the services become even more significant the longer you breastfeed.
Breast milk is the most nutritious source of milk for your child. Even though many children are eating various other foods by the time they’re a year old, breast milk helps to complete your child’s nutrition. It continues to provide your child with fat, protein, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals.
The idea that your milk “turns to water” or lacks nutritional value after a certain period is a myth. Research has found that breast milk retains its nutritional quality for the entire duration of breastfeeding. Plus, its composition may change based on the needs of your growing child.
For example, one study found that the nutritional content of breast milk mostly stays the same during the second year of life. While zinc and potassium decrease, total protein increases. No changes were observed in the lactose, fat, iron, and potassium contents of the milk.
Another study found that breast milk after one year had higher energy and fat contents, which may benefit babies. “During prolonged lactation, the fat energy contribution of breast milk to the infant diet might be significant,” the researchers surmised.
Breast milk contains antibodies and other healthy immune-boosting factors. Even older children benefit from the immune protection that passes to them through breast milk.
While there are certainly ways to bond with your child if you are not breastfeeding, any parent of a toddler will tell you that all the cuddling and closeness of those early months become harder to come by once your baby is mobile and exploring.
Many breastfeeding parents say that nursing becomes the one time each day they get to settle in with their child and stay connected.
Children who are breastfed longer get sick less often and have shorter periods of illness compared to non-breastfed children. Plus, when your child is sick, breastfeeding is comforting and can help prevent dehydration.
Breastfeeding is calming and relaxing. It can help your toddler to cope with fear and stress. As your child becomes more independent and begins to venture out into the world, it’s comforting for him to know that he can return to the safety and security of nursing in your arms.
If you continue to breastfeed your child for an extended period, you’ll likely find that your breasts become the ultimate source of comfort for your baby.
This has pluses and minuses, as it can sometimes feel stressful to be the main person your child comes to when they’re upset or hurt. At the same time, nursing is an excellent tool for relaxing your child and helping them regulate their emotions.
Mothers who have breastfed beyond one year describe their children as:
- More emotionally secure
- Physically healthier
- More loving and friendly
- More independent
- Easier to comfort during pain or stress
- Happier and more cheerful
Breastfeeding is a beautiful, natural function of life. The continuation of breastfeeding for longer than one year is normal and beneficial to mothers and children. Therefore, breastfeeding should be supported and encouraged for as long as possible. We have the best range of baby nursery blankets to keep your baby just right day and night.
Is There Any Benefit for the Child, or Is it Only for the Breastfeeding Parent?
You may hear people suggest that extended breastfeeding is only for the benefit of the breastfeeding parent. Once a child reaches a particular milestone (teething, eating solids, or asking for milk are commonly mentioned), it’s inappropriate to continue.
As any breastfeeding parent can attest, you can’t make a child want to nurse. Breastfeeding is not accomplished through force. An extended breastfeeding relationship is — at the core — one that must be mutual, with both baby and parent as willing participants.
Future Health of the Parent and Baby
Nursing isn’t just healthy during the here and now. Extended breastfeeding offers both the parent and baby long-term health benefits.
For children who have a family history of allergies, breastfeeding for at least four months can protect them from developing allergies later in life.
According to the AAP, breastfeeding for more than six months can protect children from developing leukemia and lymphoma. Breastfeeding also reduces the risk of developing type 1 and 2 diabetes.
A longer duration of breastfeeding is associated with maternal disease reduction and protection. It reduces breast cancer, ovarian cancer, diabetes, hypertension, obesity, and heart attack.
When to Introduce Solid Foods
Breastmilk or infant formula should be your baby’s primary source of nutrition for around the first year of life. Health professionals recommend exclusive breastfeeding for six months, with a gradual introduction of appropriate family foods in the second six months and ongoing breastfeeding for two years or beyond.
Babies show they are ready to start solids when they:
- Start showing interest when others are eating
- Start making gestures that seem to say ‘feed me too.’
- Stop pushing out any food put in their mouth (disappearance of the tongue-thrust reflex)
- Start being able to hold their head up and sit without support.
- Talk to your maternal and child health nurse about your baby’s readiness to eat.
What Are the Concerns About Extended Breastfeeding?
Extended breastfeeding is an excellent choice for many families, but it usually doesn’t come without some reservations and worries. Here are some of the top concerns parents face when they’re considering extended breastfeeding.
Although most women feel that there are no negative aspects to nursing long-term, there may be some drawbacks to breastfeeding an older child.
- You might have to deal with social hostility.
- You could feel a loss of your freedom.
- An older child may not be very discreet in public, which could be embarrassing.
- It can be exhausting.
- Breastfeeding longer can affect your marriage and your sex life.
- It may interfere with your ability to spend time with your other children.
There’s no denying that the rest of society doesn’t always accept extended breastfeeding. While many parents nurse their children past 12 months —and even past two years — it’s often not a subject that’s talked about openly, and there’s a stigma attached to doing so.
For anyone who has nursed a toddler or child, it’s a perfectly normal and comfortable experience, but people who do not know what it’s like are often judgmental.
The Child Who Refuses to Be Weaned
You may be ready to cease breastfeeding, but your child may resist all your attempts to do so. Your approach will depend on your child’s age. There are many strategies for weaning a baby.
If your child can talk and understand well, talk with them about your breastfeeding. Explain that you are going to stop and introduce other ways that you can enjoy being close together. You could seek professional advice about weaning or difficulties associated with weaning.
How to Deal With Criticism
Many women feel that the main negative to long-term nursing is social stigma. It can be tough to deal with the strange looks or opposing comments that breastfeeding a toddler can bring. Breastfeeding moms often become uncomfortable nursing older children around others and will only nurse at home.
Sometimes women become closet nurses and do not even let their mothers or best friends know that they’re still breastfeeding. They would instead breastfeed in secret than deal with the disapproving remarks of family and friends. If you feel this way, a local community breastfeeding group, such as La Leche League International, can benefit. It’s a great place to go to feel accepted and find much-needed encouragement and support.
Changing the Attitudes
More and more women are breastfeeding longer. With more excellent education and understanding, attitudes are beginning to change. Laws have been put in place to protect breastfeeding women who need to return to work and those who breastfeed in public. Hopefully, as it becomes more visible in our society, the negative attitudes will begin to fade away only to be replaced by acceptance.
How Can I Handle Negative Reactions to Breast-Feeding Beyond Infancy?
How long you breastfeed is up to you and your child. If loved ones — and even strangers — share their opinions about when to wean, remind them that the decision is yours. Try not to worry about what other people think. Instead, trust your instincts.
Breastfeeding beyond infancy can be an intimate way to continue nurturing your child. If you’re considering breastfeeding beyond infancy, think about what’s best for both you and your child — and enjoy this particular time together.
How to Create Boundaries With Your Child
As your child gets older, it’s OK if you don’t want to continue nursing them “on demand.”
It’s normal to want to set some boundaries with your child. Some toddlers still want to nurse “all the time.” If that works for you, that’s great (all children do eventually taper off on their own!). But if you need some space between feedings, that’s OK too.
Some parents only nurse at nap time and night time. Others only do so at other set times each day. Your child may be upset at first, but your mental health is essential, so if setting nursing boundaries is necessary for you to make this work, your child will adjust.
What About Nighttime Nursing?
Many toddlers continue to want to nurse at night. It’s very typical, though it surprises many parents. If nighttime nursing works well for you, go for it.
If it doesn’t, you can begin night weaning your child. You can substitute nighttime sessions with water, a back rub, or other soothing techniques. Some parents find that a partner has to take over for a few nights, as their child only wants to nurse if the breastfeeding parent is around.
If night weaning isn’t working, consider trying again in a few months, when your child is more ready.
When Should You Wean?
There’s no set period by which you need to wean your child. Doing so is a very personal decision that each family has to make on their own. The American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) writes that 2–7 years old is the estimated “natural weaning age for humans.”
Most nursing toddlers naturally wean sometime between 2–4 years. You can wait until that time, or try some gentle weaning techniques on your own, such as “don’t offer, don’t refuse,” slowly shortening nursing sessions, or substituting them with snuggles or another form of connection.
Extended breastfeeding has been taboo for many years, but fortunately, the tide seems to be turning. Your decision about whether to nurse long term is one that you should feel empowered to make on your terms and in whatever way works for you, your child and your family. You can also read our article about the pros and cons of breastfeeding.