“Extended Breastfeeding”: The 4-1-1 On Nursing Through The Toddler Years

Written by

Sara Langer

9:00 am
09/28/18

Photographed by Jade Beall

The number of women breastfeeding their babies at birth has been on the rise over the last couple of decades. And while so many of us know that “fed is best,” there is no denying the numerous benefits of breastfeeding your baby. But what about breastfeeding after infancy and into toddlerhood? The World Health Organization recommends breastfeeding for at least two years, even though a recent global survey reported that over 70% of women who participated believe a two year old is too old to breastfeed. Meanwhile, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends breastfeeding for at least one year.

Taking all of this into consideration, there is an obvious disconnect between the data, research, and recommendations of national and global organizations and public knowledge and opinion around the topic. For many women who have successfully breastfed beyond one year or two years, there is a problem with using the phrase “extended breastfeeding.” Using this term infers that it is not normal or natural to breastfeed beyond infancy, even though many experts believe that the age for naturally self-weaning is anywhere from two to seven years old. Throughout most of history, before the 20th century, breastfeeding well into toddlerhood was the norm.

While there is no scientific evidence showing any negative effects of breastfeeding beyond infancy, the general American population doesn’t believe it’s normal in the 21st century. Still, many women do breastfed during the toddler years and beyond. If you’re one of them, or aspire to be, read on for more facts, tips, and things to expect.

Nursing beyond one year (in the U.S.) is considered “Extended Breastfeeding”.
As stated above, the American Academy of Pediatric recommends breastfeeding for at least one year, but in the U.S. it is not very common for women to make it that long. In fact, less than a third of babies in the United States are still breastfeeding at one year old. According to data collected from the Center for Disease Control in 2014, about 80% of all mothers start out breastfeeding their babies at birth. By six months old, about 50% of babies are breastfed, and by 12 months old only 30% of babies are still breastfed. Even though the WHO encourages breastfeeding for at least two years, there is still often social stigma around breastfeeding into the toddler years, in the U.S. and other parts of the world. In addition, the lack of government-supported maternal care programs and the rise of dual-income families can make it even more difficult to continue breastfeeding past infancy.

There is still a lot of nutritional benefits in breastmilk, no matter how long you nurse.
A common misguided argument for why toddlers don’t need to nurse anymore is that they are no longer receiving any nutrition from breastmilk. But breastmilk has all of the same nutrients and healthy fats for the developing brain at one year as it does at six months and two years old. Some studies even argue that breastmilk will become more nutritionally dense beyond one year old. Yes, a women’s supply is likely to diminish, so the child may be receiving less quantity, but the breastmilk is not less nutritious. Well known author and attachment parenting advocate Dr. William Sears emphasizes the nutritional benefits of breastfeeding beyond a year. “The brain grows more during the first two years of life than any other time, nearly tripling in size from birth to two years of age,” he says. “It’s clearly a crucial time for brain development, and the intellectual advantage breastfed babies enjoy is attributed to the ‘smart fats’ unique to mom’s breast milk (namely, omega-3 fatty acid, also known as DHA). From head to toe, babies who breastfeed for extended periods of time are healthier overall.” While Sears and his devotees claim that “from head to toe, babies who breastfeed for extended periods of time are healthier overall,” one should note that a recent study in the Journal Pediatrics found no long-term cognitive benefits to breastfeeding.

Breastfeeding is an immune booste
It is widely known that breastfeeding will help a baby’s developing immune system, which is only 60% developed by the time they are one year old. With their immunity still developing, continued breastfeeding will help protect them as they encounter more germs, through increased exposure in preschool, daycare, playgrounds, etc.

Sleeping through the night may come later.
Breastfeeding long term is a commitment and you may lose some sleep over it. If you don’t night-wean your breastfeeding toddler, you may find that they continue to wake through the night to nurse as they get older. They may develop stronger sleep associations with breastfeeding, making it harder to fall asleep on their own. Some mothers choose to co-sleep in order to breastfeed throughout the night with as little interruption as possible. Others will decide to night-wean or sleep train in order to cut out the nighttime nursing.

Your breastfed toddler can still be independent.
Breastfeeding into toddlerhood can provide you with the opportunity to continue to develop and strengthen your bond with your child. Some naysayers may believe that continuing to nurse “just for comfort” is detrimental and will cause a child to be over-dependent, but this is not true at all. Breastfeeding provides nutrition, but it also provides comfort and reassurance, just as a pacifier, thumb sucking, or special blanket or stuffed animal might. It is natural and normal for a toddler to seek comfort, and providing it through breastfeeding will reassure them of the loving relationship they have with you. There is no evidence that suggests breastfeeding toddlers are less independent than toddlers who do not breastfeed.

Weaning can become a negotiation with your child as they get older.
There may be some tears and crying when weaning an infant, but as your baby turns into a toddler, there will likely be some negotiating and discussions about weaning. As a toddler’s awareness and comprehension of the world around them develops, you will need to talk about weaning before it happens. Acknowledge the special time you have shared together and talk about replacements for nursing or soothing, whether it’s extra snuggles and kisses or a new stuffed animal. Take it slow, and allow yourself a few weeks or months to make the transition.

You don’t need to explain your decision to anyone.
It is your body and your child. Enough said.

Leave a Comment

3 comments

Leanza

What a completely wonderful article! When I was breastfeeding I was always looking for write-ups like this. I breastfead for slightly over two years, and though this was recent (after the WHO noted that two + years is ideal) I still felt like I was the last mother doing it (in Berkeley!). We weaned over a six months period, and only because I wasn’t able to get pregnant while breastfeeding. I would have let her continue as long as she liked had the clock not been ticking for me biologically. Fist we day weaned, then I night weaned (which actually was ok even though we coselpt and she was right beside my breasts), then we weaned from wakeup feeds and lastly from feedings right before bed.
We found that partial weaning, night weaning while cosleeping, etc were all possible with less strife than we had thought. I was so worried that my daughter would be too attached, or two distraught at the various weanings, or that she’d never cosleep without feeding though the night. But each transition took only a few days. And as the article notes, as they get older you’re able to talk them through it, which is so helpful.
Thank you MotherMag for another apt article!

Sarah

Thanks for posting on this topic and including all of the many benefits of extended nursing. I grew up in a large family and nearly all of the women practiced extended breastfeeding. I therefore didn’t hesitate to continue nursing well into my daughter’s third year. It was surprising how often – even with fellow moms – that this was a difficult subject to share.

If you’re out there nursing a toddler please know that you’re not alone and are doing a really wonderful thing for you kid. Follow your instincts, find a friend or a group to give you a little support, and applaud yourself!

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