Written by Aparna Hari
Breastfeeding is a medically proven way to keep babies nourished. Breastfed babies stay protected from illnesses and get all the nourishment they need. Breastfeeding also offers a host of health and emotional benefits for the mother. While most mothers choose to wean their baby off breastmilk once the baby turns a year old, other moms may opt for extended breastfeeding.
Extended breastfeeding is where the mother may choose to breastfeed the baby beyond 6 months or one year of age. They continue to feed until the baby naturally weans off, or until it works for the mother and the baby.
In This Article
Breastfeeding a baby beyond their first year is called extended breastfeeding. WHO always recommends continuing breastfeeding, along with solids or other complimentary food, up to 2 years of age or over if the mother and baby can.
Although there is no expected age to stop breastfeeding, it depends upon the mother and the baby. Often this decision can be influenced by the culture or the family set-up that one is raising the baby in. This also depends on what a mother is comfortable with.
For some people, breastfeeding past the minimum suggestion of 6 months is extended breastfeeding. Others may consider breastfeeding up to years of age as normal. In some cultures, mothers may breastfeed their babies up to 7 years of age.
Most health professionals recommend breastfeeding the baby for a minimum of 12 months and go beyond if possible.
According to the various health associations, including the Academy of American Pediatrics (AAP), WHO, and the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP), “when breastfeeding continues for at least 2 years,” it is “optimal” for the health of both mother and the baby.
There are many benefits of extended breastfeeding to the baby and the mother as well. This is one of the reasons for its popularity. Here are the top benefits of extended breastfeeding.
According to health professionals, breast milk stays nutritious throughout breastfeeding – from birth until when one breastfeeds. In fact, its composition changes based on what the baby or the toddler’s growing body needs.
Contrary to the often-quoted idea that “milk turns to water after a certain point”, breast milk is the only thing in a baby’s diet that continues to support the baby in every phase by changing the nutrition it provides.
The first milk fed to the baby at birth, also called colostrum, is very high in immune-boosting elements to help the baby in the world outside the womb. Breast milk has a higher content of fat and energy after the baby turns one.
In the second year of a baby’s life, breast milk is higher in protein and lower in zinc and potassium to support the growing toddler’s body. The lactose, iron, fat, and potassium in the milk stay the same throughout. After the age of two, breast milk is the highest in protein and fat to help support the increasing energy needs of toddlers.
Breast milk contains antibodies that help boost immunity. These antibodies are highest in the colostrum and continue to stay in the milk even as it matures. Breast milk is also always very high in probiotics which help strengthen a baby’s gut for as long as they are on mother’s milk.
Breastfed babies have lower rates of allergies, ear infections, asthma, diarrheal and respiratory illnesses, colds, and even diabetes. When babies get sick, breastfeeding also provides them comfort and is often the only thing in the diet that their stomach can digest.
Once a baby is mobile and starts to explore, breastfeeding time becomes one of the few moments in the day for a mother and a baby to connect.
According to studies, breastfeeding leads to higher bonding between the mother and the baby because of increased skin-to-skin contact. This bonding in the initial phases of a baby’s life helps reduce both social and behavioral problems in babies as per some health professionals.
Both infants and toddlers find breastfeeding or nursing time soothing. Some toddlers continue to nurse to sleep for the comfort it provides them. Some studies do suggest that breastfeeding helps a baby and parent connect, reducing stress and making it easy for the baby to ease distress. Nursing even leads to lower levels of stress and anxiety in mothers.
It can sometimes get difficult for the mother to be the ultimate source of comfort for the baby or the toddler. In such cases, breastfeeding can be a very good tool to relax and soothe the baby. This instant comfort helps infants and toddlers regulate their emotions.
Extended breastfeeding can provide both the mother and the baby with future health benefits. According to AAP, breastfeeding beyond 6 months can protect babies from diabetes, leukemia, and lymphoma. Breastfeeding for a longer period reduces the risk of diabetes, hypertension, obesity, breast and ovarian cancer, and heart attack in mothers, according to several studies.
While extended breastfeeding may have many benefits to the mother and the baby, there are also certain challenges that the mother can face. Here are a couple of them to consider.
Once a baby turns 6 months old, the diet must include adequate solid food. Low solids in the diet can interfere with the baby’s development as breast milk can only supplement and no longer be the main component of the baby’s diet. If the diet requirements are met, there are no medical disadvantages to extended breastfeeding.
There has always been social stigma and judgment around prolonged breastfeeding. Most mothers may prefer weaning once the baby celebrates their first birthday. Mothers often need to explain their choice of continuing breastfeeding and face several queries on when the baby will wean off.
Breastfeeding is a long-term commitment from mothers as it’s a demanding process and needs time and effort, which mothers of toddlers might not have enough of. For working mothers as well, extended breastfeeding might require pumping breaks at work which could be tough to take.
While extended breastfeeding is a healthy option from all points of view and has been common for most of human history, it comes with challenges.
Like infants, some toddlers continue nighttime feeding. If that doesn’t work for the mother, she can consider nighttime weaning. Post-nursing can be helpful if the toddler sleeps with the father or another caregiver.
There might be some unnecessary judgment or criticism related to extended breastfeeding. So, it is a good idea to equip yourself with information about the benefits of breastfeeding along with evidence so that you don’t second guess your decision. Ignoring the noise is also helpful since only you know what’s best for you and your baby.
Extended breastfeeding, just like initial breastfeeding, is a mother’s choice – when, where a baby is fed, for how long, exclusively, or not. The benefits of extended breastfeeding are well known and understood now, and therefore a mother should feel confident in her decision to nurse for long. A nutritional and a calming experience for both the mother and the toddler, it is to be enjoyed and not felt guilty about.
[Read : Top Tips For Baby Night Weaning]
There is no maximum period until when a mother can produce milk. The milk production largely depends upon the demand from the baby, if hormonally all is well with the mother. Healthy endocrine levels, adequate calories, physical and emotional health, optimum stress levels, and non-menopausal – all these factors contribute to healthy milk production.
In many places, breastfeeding beyond 6 months of age is considered extended, while for most it’s after the baby turns 1 year old.
Her experience in impactful writing combined with her background in Home Sciences makes Aparna the perfect candidate for content writing in the pregnancy and parenting niche.Read more.
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