Pros & Cons of Extended Breastfeeding: Is It Right For You?
While breastfeeding beyond one year of age (sometimes called extended breastfeeding) is quite normal in many cultures, in Western society it’s often still viewed as outside the norm. In fact, for many mothers around the world, it’s not unusual for a toddler to nurse until age two or three (sometimes longer). It’s sometimes believed that there comes a point where breastmilk no longer offers any benefits. This is false. Breastfeeding continues to offer health and developmental benefits for as long as it continues. Let’s take a closer look at the health benefits of extended breastfeeding, along with some of the downsides and how to handle criticism.
How Long Should Children Breastfeed?
Mothers and babies should practice breastfeeding for as long as it is mutually beneficial to both parties. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends exclusive breastfeeding for about the first six months and supports continued breastfeeding after solid foods are introduced, as long as the parent and baby desire, for two years or beyond. Their policy states, “There is no upper limit to the duration of breastfeeding and no evidence of psychologic or developmental harm from breastfeeding into the third year of life or longer.” The AAP policy closely aligns with recommendations from the World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF, which state that from the age of 6 months, children should begin eating safe and adequate complementary foods while continuing to breastfeed for up to two years of age and beyond.
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What Are the Benefits of Extended Breastfeeding?
All of the benefits to a parent’s and child’s physical and mental well-being continue for as long as the child is breastfed. In fact, many of those benefits increase when a child is nursed longer.
1. Extra nourishment
Human breast milk is the healthiest, most nourishing source of milk for a child. Though many little ones are experimenting with an assortment of solid foods by the end of their first year, breast milk continues to offer a healthy complement to their diet, providing proteins, carbohydrates, fats, minerals, and vitamins.
2. Immune system boost
It takes somewhere between two and six years for a child’s immune system to fully mature. Human milk is loaded with antibodies, and research shows it continues to boost the immune system for as long as it is offered. Studies on the incidence of illness in breastfed toddlers also reflect these dynamics. Little ones who are breastfed longer get sick less often and typically have shorter periods of illness compared to those who aren’t breastfed. In addition, nursing is soothing to most children and can help them avoid dehydration when ill.
3. Security and convenience
Nursing is comforting for little ones and can help them handle fear and stress. As your toddler becomes more autonomous and starts to venture out into the world, it's reassuring for them to know that they can come back to the comfort and protection of nursing. Parents who practice extended breastfeeding often describe their little ones as more independent, easier to soothe when upset, physically healthier, and overall happier, friendlier children.
4. Allows for natural weaning
Natural, gradual weaning allows a child to maintain their emotional attachment to their mother instead of transferring that attachment to a cuddly toy or blanket. Sudden weaning may leave a little one feeling their parent has withdrawn their love as well as the breast.
Weaning too quickly may also cause the breasts to become uncomfortably full since the body responds to hormone signals to reduce milk production only gradually. This abrupt change in hormone levels may cause the mother to feel depressed, in addition to the risk of developing mastitis or a breast abscess.
The physiological process of weaning is complicated and affects microbiological, biochemical, nutritional, immunological, and psychological aspects for both mother and child. Gradual natural weaning allows the composition of human milk to adjust in order to meet the needs of the developing child. In this way, the correct level of nutrition will remain and a child’s immunological protection is not compromised.
5. Improved parental health
A person who breastfeeds has a reduced risk of breast cancer, ovarian cancer, type 2 diabetes, and hypertension. These benefits continue to accrue as long as they breastfeed.
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What Are the Drawbacks to Extended Breastfeeding?
For most parents who engage in long-term nursing, it’s a positive experience. For some, there may be a few downsides. These may include the following:
- Dealing with social animosity
- Feeling tied down or worn out
- Feeling that it hinders opportunities to engage with other children
- Feeling embarrassed since nursing an older child is often a less discreet process
What’s the Best Way to Handle Criticism About Extended Breastfeeding?
For many parents, social hostility is the biggest downside to long-term nursing. It can be challenging to face the disapproving stares or uninvited commentary that comes along with nursing a toddler. Consequently, some parents feel awkward about breastfeeding older children around other people and will only nurse in the privacy of their own homes. If you’re struggling with this, a local community nursing group, like La Leche League International, can be a great resource to find acceptance, support, and encouragement.
Shifting Mindsets About Extended Breastfeeding
More and more parents are nursing long-term. With more awareness and education, mindsets are starting to shift. There are also laws on the books to protect breastfeeding parents who need to return to work and those who nurse in public. Extended breastfeeding is a natural and beneficial function that should be encouraged and supported. Hopefully, as nursing becomes more common in Western culture, the social stigma will dissipate and nursing will be more readily embraced.
Disclaimer: The information on our site is NOT medical advice for any specific person or condition. It is only meant as general information. Please contact your health provider if you have any medical questions or concerns about your child or yourself.
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