Extended Breastfeeding: Pros and Cons of Nursing a Toddler

To Stop Breastfeeding Or Not To Stop: A Difficult Question

Extended breastfeeding is breastfeeding beyond the baby's first year of life. How long mothers nurse depends on different cultural traditions. In many cultures, mothers breastfeed their babies for 2 years and beyond. In the United States, many mothers stop breastfeeding after 6 months - if they even breastfeed for that long.

Extended breastfeeding may or may not have health benefits for the baby - sufficient research to decide the matter is lacking. Often, the advantages and disadvantages of extended breastfeeding are not what decide it, but rather a mother's and child's feelings on the matter.

An Australian study of extended breastfeeding in 2008 reported that mothers who breastfed their babies for more than 2 years never planned to go that long, but rather changed their minds as time passed. If you're deciding whether extended breastfeeding is for you, it's helpful to know the pros and cons of nursing a baby beyond one year.

The author of this article breastfed her child for two years and feels that breastfeeding young children constitutes both a challenge and a joy.

Poll on Extended Breastfeeding

How Long Did You Breastfeed Your Child? (Or if you are still breastfeeding, how long do you intend to breastfeed?)

  • 1-6 Months
  • 7-12 Months
  • 1-2 Years
  • 2-3 Years
  • 3-4 Years
  • 4-5 Years
  • More than 5 Years
See results without voting

Extended Breastfeeding Cons: Losing Momentum

Statistics suggest that as time goes on, fewer mothers are still breastfeeding. According to the CDC's 2005 National Immunization Survey, almost 75 percent of babies born in the U.S. were breastfed, but only 12 percent were still breastfed exclusively by the time they were 6 months old, the minimum recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics. At Brigham Young University, similar data potentially spells failure for our national goal of having 50 percent of all babies breastfed exclusively through 6 months of age by the year 2010.

Mothers just aren't going the distance, even the shorter distance, and the reason why probably lies in the lack of a strong social, economic and familial support network. As time goes on, there is even less of a support network in place for mothers who want to do extended breastfeeding.

Another con of extended breastfeeding is dealing with your child's development. Although you'll breastfeed fewer times daily as time goes in, the physical nature of breastfeeding changes and can be challenging. Your toddler's favorite breastfeeding position is likely to change, and his latch will change, too, as he gets teeth and learns to eat. Some women experience sore nipples while breastfeeding a toddler. Your relationship with your breastfeeding toddler will change, and you'll both need to adapt.

Extended Breastfeeding Pros

We know from a plethora of research that exclusive breastfeeding for 6 months to a year benefits both baby and mother. Breast milk contains:

  • antibodies that support an infant's immunity to illness
  • factors that lower a baby's risk of ear infection and respiratory infection, as well as certain diseases.

Breastfeeding benefits moms as well, since a nursing mother's risk of getting breast cancer, ovarian cancer and type 2 diabetes is lower than average.

However, we don't know whether or not extended breastfeeding has health advantages for babies or mothers. Why not? Very few studies track breastfeeding beyond the first year. The WHO (World Health Organization) does report that extended breastfeeding reduces an infant's chance of dying in economically deprived regions of the world, due to the superior nutritional benefit of breast milk.

Extended Breastfeeding: What the Experts Say

  • The American Academy of Pediatrics advises mothers to breastfeed their babies for the first 6 to 12 months. The academy recommends beginning solids by 4 to 6 months and holding off on feeding babies cow's milk until they're one year of age. If breast milk is not available, infant formula is the only acceptable substitute. Dr. Ruth Lawrence, speaking for the AAP, says that no guidelines exist for when to stop breastfeeding--and that breastfeeding should go on as long as mom and baby care to continue.
  • The National Women's Health Information Center advises a longer period of nursing than just the 6 months if mom and baby want it so, and suggests beginning solids at no sooner than 6 months.
  • The World Health Organization advises mothers to breastfeed exclusively for 6 months, at which time solids should be added. They recommend mothers breastfeed for 2 years or longer.

Pros and Cons Don't Decide It - You Do

Although the mother makes the final decision, the decision to nurse for longer than one year effectively lies not only with the mother and not only with the child, but with the mother-baby team as a unit and their support network. If other caregivers and employers don't offer their support, extended breastfeeding is not likely to happen.

Personally, I've found this article fascinating to research and write. I nursed my child for two years, and for us, extended breastfeeding was both rewarding and difficult. I take a humorous view of breastfeeding to help me through the challenges. I recommend you take into account:

  • your physical health
  • the child's physical health, especially his or her immune system
  • your economic circumstances
  • your relationships with the rest of your family
  • your stress level
  • your child's emotional needs
  • your emotional needs
  • the baby's father's emotional needs (if he's in the picture)

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