Extended Breastfeeding: The Truth About Nursing Your Child Beyond a Year

  • By: Jennifer
  • Date: March 30, 2022
  • Time to read: 8 min.

The definition of extended breastfeeding will really vary depending on where in the world you are! Breast milk is considered the perfect food for infants and the world health organisation recommends exclusive breastfeeding for at least six months, and that breastfeeding continues to the age of two years and beyond.

Extended breastfeeding is lower in prevalence in developed countries where formula feeding is the preferred way to feed a child- this is why in one country, breastfeeding at 12 months might be considered extended breastfeeding, while in other countries, breastfeeding a toddler or older child is the norm rather than the exception to the rule!

The CDC reports that around 36% of babies are breastfed at 12 months, and 15% continue breast feeding at 18 months. Extended breastfeeding refers to breast feeding a child beyond infancy, past the first 12-24 months. There is no set definition of what is considered extended breastfeeding.

What Are the Benefits of Human Milk?

The health benefits of breastfeeding are well documented, indeed we have done a guide to the benefits of breastfeeding for babies and the benefits of breastfeeding for moms. Human milk is perfectly formulated to meet the needs of your growing baby- indeed, the human milk composition changes as your baby grows, with newborns getting fatty milk becoming protein-rich in the toddler years.

The American Academy of Pediatrics advise that breast milk for the first four months of life reduces the probability of children developing diabetes, allergies, leukemia and lymphoma. Children who were exclusively breastfed for up to two years are also shown to have reduced risk of ear infections and other childhood illnesses.

Research shows that breastfeeding mothers also benefit; they often regain their pre pregnancy figure faster, and enjoy reduced risks of ovarian cancer, heart disease and breast cancer. Longitudinal study shows that these risks continue to reduce further with extended breastfeeding.

One study showed a 20% reduction in the likelihood of rheumatoid arthritis in mothers who breastfed for 12-24 months, while breastfeeding can even help lower high blood pressure in mom too! And don’t forget the precious bonding- skin to skin contact and nursing post delivery have been shown to reduce the likelihood of perinatal mental and emotional health problems. It’s clear that nursing is good for mothers as well as for the child.

Breast milk is considered the gold standard, especially for premature or poorly infants. Advances in human milk banking have made is easy to get breast milk packed with valuable nutrients to the babies who really need it, but cannot breastfeed for whatever reason.

Is Formula Milk Better Than Breast Milk?

This is something to discuss with your pediatrician. While it’s generally agreed that breastfeeding is the ideal way to feed your baby if possible, it’s true that it isn’t the best fit for every mother and child. It’s worth asking your doctor about the pros and cons of both options for both yourself and your child, in order to make the best choice for both of you!

The benefits of formula would be that it is much easier to hand feeding responsibilities to someone else if you need to return to life or even just get some time to yourself! Formula babies do also seem to tend to sleep better- though it certainly isn’t always the case, so don’t stop nursing if this is your main motivation- you may be left very disappointed!

What Is the Average Duration of Breastfeeding?

Exclusive breastfeeding is recommended for the first six months, with extended breastfeeding encouraged for as long as it is mutually desired for mom and infant. Solid foods should be offered from six months, but exclusive breastfeeding can continue alongside this.

Milk- either breastmilk or formula- should be the main source of nutrition for the first twelve months of life. After twelve months, you can expect milk intake to slowly reduce, with many toddlers self-weaning by 2-3 years of age. We’ve done a guide to how to stop breastfeeding your 1 year old and also signs on when a baby is ready to wean from breastfeeding to help you in your decision.

Extended nursing is a personal choice, with significant benefits, so don’t worry about what everyone else is doing! Nursing your baby or toddler should be enjoyable, and if it’s not, it’s time to look at either weaning your child, or just reducing nursing sessions a little to make the breastfeeding relationship suit your needs too.

Night weaning is a great way to meet your child in the middle, ensuring that you get some personal space and that you both get a great nights sleep.

Is Breastfeeding Beyond Infancy Good for Mom’s Mental Health?

Breastfeeding promotes bonding and releases “happy” hormones into moms bloodstream. That said, breastfeeding, especially extended breastfeeding, can come with it’s own difficulties. It’s really important that mothers ensure to get a break from nursing their toddler from time to time; it can be hard work, emotionally and physically!

Mothers should always contact their doctor if they are struggling, and can also constult with la leche league international for up to date information on extended breastfeeding.

How Long Should I Give My Child Breast Milk?

When you decide to stop breastfeeding is entirely your own choice- don’t feel pressured, because if you all of a sudden stop nursing, you are at increased risk of mastitis, and your child may feel the psychological effects too.

Several peer reviewed studies demonstrate that breastfeeding for at least a year postpartum is associated with better outcomes for both moms and babies. The advantages of breastfeeding do not simply stop because your child reaches a certain age.

Remember, that if you are no longer comfortable with breastfeeding, another great option is to express your milk. You can do this with either a pump or by hand expressing, and YES it still counts, and you are still giving your baby the best start in life!

Is Extended Breastfeeding Weird?

Perceptions around breastfeeding for a longer duration really vary depending on where in the world you are. Research clearly demonstrated the health benefits, along with the emotional benefits to mom and baby of breastfeeding to the second year postpartum and beyond.

There is nothing weird about enjoying a close bond with your infant, and giving them the very best nutrition you can possibly give. It really is none of anybody else’s business that you are breastfeeding your child!

Toddlers are still learning to navigate the world around them, and breast milk not only gives optimal nutrition from birth but also promotes good emotional health in the infant. In some countries of the world is considered entirely normal to nurse a child to around the age of five. There is no set age to which you should breastfeed! If you think your baby is addicted to breastfeeding then read our guide on what to do.

What matters is that mother and infant are happy. Some moms come up with a clever code word for breast milk, so that their toddler can ask to be breastfed discreetly; indeed, toddlers are rarely subtle about things that they want! Your child certainly won’t consider breastfeeding to be weird, in fact, nursing likely gives them an intense sense of security and love. This is much more important than what anybody else thinks!

Does Extended Breastfeeding Have a Negative Impact on Child Development?

No, there is no evidence to support any negative outcomes due to extended breastfeeding. In fact, some research shows that breast fed babies grow up to become more intelligent, and encounter fewer childhood illnesses in life, than their bottle fed peers.

Continued breastfeeding offers additional security to the infant, which is why the American Academy of pediatrics recommends breastfeeding to the age of two years and beyond. One thing we can promise is that your toddler will not nurse forever- most children will wean themselves by around 3 years old.

The world around us is very exciting, and you’ll find that as your child grows, thanks to that secure attachment they have with you, they will want to explore and will naturally nurse less and less. Many mothers never even realise when they are nursing for the last time!

Can Breast Feeding Mothers Drink Alcohol?

There is no need to wean simply because you are breastfeeding! Credible sources show that only tiny amounts of alcohol make it through to your milk, presenting very little risk to the breastfed infant. Some parents like to play it safe and entirely avoid alcohol from birth to around 6 months, when baby begins to nurse a little less.

The main concern surrounding alcohol is whether you can safely care for the children in your care; ensure that if you are consuming large amounts of alcohol that someone else is available to care for the children, and never, ever fall asleep nursing your baby or toddler after drinking alcohol.

There is no need to “pump and dump” as alcohol levels will naturally reduce in your breastmilk at the same rate that they disappear from your blood stream.

What Does the World Health Organization Recommend?

It is recommended that exclusive breastfeeding provides the optimal nutrition for the first six months of life, and that nursing should continue for as long as mother and baby/toddler are happy to nurse. Remember that nursing is the biological norm and provides your baby with everything they need to thrive.

There is no recommended stage to wean, with most experts in pediatrics recognising the clear health perks of breastfeeding to both mother and child.

Is It True That Breast Milk Changes as Your Baby Grows?

The make up of breast milk changes in order to provide the ideal nutrition for your baby or toddler, at whatever stage they are at. This includes taking on a more watery composition when your baby is sick or hot and needs to nurse more.

Additionally, when you come in to contact an infection, the antibodies created by your body will automatically carry over in to your milk and reach your toddler, helping them to get over the illness quickly. This provides massive protection of the health of your child.

The benefits of breastfeeding to the health of your toddler certainly do not just stop at some predetermined age- they merely change and adapt according to the needs of your child.

The Bottom Line on Long Term Breastfeeding

Breastfeeding has very clear benefits to the health of babies and toddlers, with breastfed toddlers typically getting sick a lot less than formula fed babies. Mothers should continue to nurse their children for as long as both mother and baby are happy to do so.

Toddlers will often self wean at around 2-4 years; they really won’t be breastfeeding forever! The best advice for any mother is to follow the needs of their toddler- and remember that nursing provides emotional and developmental benefits to children- it’s not all about nutrition!