What is extended breastfeeding?
Are there any benefits of extended breastfeeding?
How can breast milk help a kid’s development past infancy?
Last year this time when I went for my son’s usual milestone check up, the pediatrician who is an Egyptian asked me about Reyhan’s daily activities, feeding schedule, milestones and so on.
When I said that I am still breastfeeding my 2 year old, she stood up and gave me a standing ovation. She said that only a few moms take the effort to breastfeed this long and I have done the best for my child.
Nevertheless to say I was full of goose bumps and mommy pride especially because my hubby was standing next to me 😛
That same day, I researched a bit more about extended breastfeeding just to know why the doctor was so full of appreciation for me. And yes she was right; I did the right thing for my child.
Even after having so many unpleasant experiences at the starting stage of breastfeeding I succeeded in breastfeeding a toddler.
Here in this article let us see what are the benefits and the downsides of extended breastfeeding.
There is no doubt that breastfeeding your baby is the best thing you can do for his growth and immunity.
Breastfeed babies have many benefits compared to their non-breastfeed peers. This is one reason why pediatricians and experts worldwide recommend to exclusively breastfeed the baby till he turns six months and to continue breastfeeding at least till the baby turns one.
The answer to how long to continue breastfeeding varies in different parts of the world depending on the lifestyle and culture.
In some parts of the world it is quite normal to breastfeed kids till they turn 3 or 4 years. In some cultures it is common to stop breastfeeding as early as 6 months.
Though there is an increased awareness on breastfeeding, the pros and cons of breastfeeding a child beyond infancy are not much discussed and are mostly surrounded by doubts, myths and raised eyebrows from society.
What is extended breastfeeding?
When a mom and child decide to continue breastfeeding after the child’s first birthday, it is regarded as extended breastfeeding. In short it is breastfeeding a toddler/preschooler.
Extended breastfeeding is also called long-term breastfeeding.
Is breastfeeding past infancy recommended?
As more and more campaigns are done to increase awareness regarding the benefits of breastfeeding, there is a considerable increase in the number of mothers who are breastfeeding their babies at least until they are one year of age.
Breastfeeding beyond one year is strongly supported by experts and pediatricians worldwide.
The UNICEF encourages moms to breastfeed till the child is two years of age.
The American Academy Of Pediatrics recommends to breastfeed a baby for at least one year and continue breastfeeding as long as the mother and child is comfortable.
In non-human primates weaning is natural and is initiated considering the many factors like the time of eruption of permanent molars, the gestation time, birth weight etc. For chimpanzees and gorillas the natural weaning age is 6 years.
According to the studies done by Kathy Dettwyler, the natural age of weaning in humans, considering how the non-human primates wean, can range from 2.5 to 7 years.
Again we can’t and don’t forcefully make kids to crawl, talk or walk before they can do it naturally on their own. There is a time and pace for everything. The same should hold true for breastfeeding.
There is a time when the child will hit the milestone of naturally stopping nursing. So why rush and cut of his relationship with breast before he is even ready?
What are the benefits of nursing beyond infancy?
All of us are aware about the benefits of breast milk. It is the best nutrition custom made for your child. Breastfeeding helps to improve over all physical and mental health of the child.
Babies who are exclusively breastfeed till they are 6 months of age have stronger immunity. Breastfeeding also helps prevent obesity, SIDS and allergies. It is also beneficial for the mother as it prevents postpartum depression and the chances of getting breast cancer.
All these benefits of breastfeeding are highlighted in all the breastfeeding campaigns around the world. These campaigns normally revolve around encouraging exclusive nursing till 6 months and continuing till one year.
The benefits of breastfeeding beyond the age of one year are normally not projected amidst the “exclusive nursing till 6 months” campaigns and thus the awareness about the benefits of long-term breastfeeding is not reaching many moms.
Let us see some of the benefits of extended breastfeeding:
#1. Provides nutrition for the child
Breast milk is the best when the nutritional value is taken into account. This stands true even after your baby reaches toddlerhood.
The nutritional value of breast milk doesn’t decrease after a yearlong breastfeeding, instead the proteins, fats and vitamins in breast milk can still contribute to the nutritional requirements of your child.
Experts say that the protein and fat content in breast milk increases with prolonged lactation.
#2. Increased immunity
This is one bonus point of breast milk that other substitutes lack.
Other foods/supplements or formula milk can supplement the nutritional benefits provided by breast milk, but the antibodies present in breast milk is hard to recreate.
Breast milk is naturally rich in immunoglobulin/ antibodies that are required for building immunity.
Researches show that kids who are breastfed fall less ill than those who aren’t. Also breastfed babies are less prone to allergies and conditions like asthma.
#3. Boosts brain development
Studies say that breastfeeding aids in better brain development of the baby.
#4. Soothing for the child
Sometimes breastfeeding turns out as the best way to sooth a hurt child.
We have many a times turned to breastfeeding to calm a crying baby. This works for toddlers too.
The close skin-to-skin contact while breastfeeding can assure safety and a feeling of being considered and protected. This will be very much soothing for the child.
#5. Good for mother’s health
Breastfeeding reduces the risk of breast cancer and ovarian cancer.
Prolonged breastfeeding further reduces the risk of getting these diseases. Breastfeeding also helps reduce postpartum weight. So it is good for moms too.
#6. Comfort food
Sometimes when a toddler is sick and is not able to eat properly, the best choice of food during sickness would be breast milk. Easy to consume and full of energy and antibodies, breast milk can give relief to a sick child than any other food.
#7. Stronger bonding
Breastfeeding helps to share a special bonding between mom and child. This bonding gets stronger with long-term breastfeeding.
Myths about extended breastfeeding:
One reason why moms step back from breastfeeding a toddler is because of the myths associated with it.
Let us discuss some of these common myths and the true version of it.
Myth #1: Breast milk is of no importance after 6 months or once the baby starts solids.
Fact: The fact is that breast milk provides immunity and nutrition to the growing baby along as you breastfeed. So exclusive breastfeeding till 6 months and breastfeeding along with solid foods afterwards is a must for the well balanced diet of the baby.
Myth #2: Nutritional value of breast milk becomes less after one year of feeding
Fact: Studies show that breast milk during the second year of breastfeeding contains higher concentrations of antibodies, lactoferrin (a type of protein with iron binding and bactericidal properties) and lysozyme than during the first year of feeding.
Myth #3: Extended breastfeeding restricts a child from developing own immunity
Fact: This claim is baseless, as the baby will develop his own immunity as he grows. Breastfeeding provides additional protection against diseases and actually helps to strengthen the child’s own immunity.
Myth #4: Prolonged breastfeeding discourages intake of other solid food and thus hinders the healthy growth of the child
Fact: This is true to a certain extend. If the child is mostly breastfeed through out the day he may not have an interest/space left for other food items.
But in most of the cases as the baby grows, the frequency of breastfeeding and the quantity will decrease considerably compared to the first months of nursing. This will naturally encourage developing an interest in other solid food.
So the key to this is to reduce the frequency of breastfeeds, as the baby gets older and include solid food too for well-balanced growth.
Myth #5: Long-term breastfeeding makes weaning difficult
Fact: Not true. You must have noticed how the frequency of nursing decreases considerably as the baby develops interest in solid food. Slowly the baby will wean off from the breast as and when he is ready. This baby led weaning will be more beneficial as the baby lets go off the breast when he is actually ready.
So if your child is happy to nurse even after his first birthday, let him do that as long as he wishes. He knows when to stop and it is a natural process that will take place when the time comes.
Myth #6: Child will get dependent and lack self-confidence due to the long-term relationship with breast
Fact: Contrary to this belief a child who initiates weaning on his own will be more self confident and independent.
When a child chooses to breastfeed beyond his first birthday and when he himself decides the pace of weaning, he will be more emotionally ready to accept the changes than kids who are forcefully weaned when they are not ready for it.
Attorney and breastfeeding expert Elizabeth N. Baldwin says that meeting a child’s dependency needs is the key to helping that child achieve independence and children will outgrow these needs according to their own unique timetable.
So yes breastfeeding for a long time will not make your baby a mamma’s boy, instead it will give him time to emotionally get ready to be independent.
Myth #7: It is difficult to breastfeed a toddler
Fact: Toddlers cannot stay still for a long time and won’t stay peacefully latched on to the breast like a newborn do. But it is not difficult to breastfeed a toddler.
To be breastfed is the toddler’s need, so he will not put you in a difficult situation while nursing. 🙂
And again you can always distract him and make his stay still while breastfeeding.
Myth #8: Prolonged breastfeeding can make it difficult for the mother to become fertile again
Fact: This is absolutely not true. You must have experienced yourself that your normal menstrual cycle returns after a few months of postpartum even when you are breastfeeding.
For majority of woman, prolonged breastfeeding doesn’t prolong return of fertility.
So these are some of the myths associated with long-term nursing. Hope the myths are busted.
What to take care when you are breastfeeding beyond infancy?
When you decide to breastfeed beyond infancy, you should consider certain things to make it a smooth business with more profit than loss.
Firstly, breastfeeding should not interfere with your kid’s solid intake, as he grows older. This means that the frequency and quantity of breastfeeding should decrease, as the baby gets older. Both solid intake and nursing should go hand in hand.
If your baby is more dependent on breast milk and is not showing interest in other food and if this is a reason for your toddler’s low growth rate, then consulting a doctor will be good. Sometimes doctors may ask you to stop breastfeeds if he thinks that the toddler is too much dependent on breast milk than his age.
Second is dental hygiene. Prolonged breastfeeding, especially at night can cause dental decay. So rinse the child’s mouth after every feed.
Lastly health of the mother. Long-term breastfeeding doesn’t cause much harm to a mom’s health. But health of the mother should be taken into account when the baby is breastfed for a longer time.
Consider taking supplements, especially calcium and iron or a multi vitamin supplement consulting with your doctor. Eat healthy when you are breastfeeding.
Extended breastfeeding while pregnant- is it safe?
Breastfeeding when you are pregnant is safe, but it can be more physically demanding for you. It will be better to wean your child before the next kid is born so that the needs of both kids are met.
Usually a toddler will self wean once you are pregnant as the taste and quantity of breast milk will change once you are pregnant.
Having said that there are many moms who nurse their elder one throughout their next pregnancy and then nurse the newborn and toddler after delivery. This is called tandem nursing. It all depends on the physical condition and pregnancy condition of the woman. So consult with your doctor if you are choosing to do tandem nursing.
How to handle the criticisms if I am nursing a toddler?
Many people will shower nasty comments or criticize you when you are breastfeeding a toddler or preschooler especially in public.
It will be embarrassing for you when your toddler demands breast milk in public or lifts your top for having his snack. This is because breast is usually portrayed as a sex symbol.
Come on, breasts are for breastfeeding. Let them do their job. Brush off the comments and criticisms that people throw at you. Give a confident smile and say to yourself, “you are doing what you think is the best for your child”.
But try to maintain a certain level of decency when you breastfeed in public. Discreet breastfeeding is often welcome everywhere even when you are nursing a toddler.
Make your toddler understand that jumping on mommy’s tummy and doing acrobatics while nursing (this is how toddlers will breastfeed, mostly they won’t follow any breastfeeding position) is fine while nursing at home, it is not considered ok in public.
Cons of extended breastfeeding:
For everything there are two sides, for breastfeeding too.
#1. Lack of freedom
You may find it difficult to travel around with a breastfeeding toddler. Your child may seek breast as his sole comfort and this can make you breastfeed more and more restricting your freedom even after your child is capable of self-feeding normal foods.
#2. Sleep problems and pain
This was one thing that bothered me as a mother who breastfed for 28 months. After around 18 months of feeding my child decided to breastfeed more frequently in nights. Result- sleepless nights and sore nipples.
When my friends who stopped breastfeeding after one year was telling about peaceful sleeps, I used to smile at them with my tired sleepy eyes.
#3. Social stigma
Long-term breastfeeding is accepted in many cultures but still you may face criticism from close ones as well as strangers.
Long-term breastfeeding is more good than bad when you do it properly without interfering with your baby’s solid intake. Solid food and breast milk should go hand in hand when you decide to do extended breastfeeding.
The benefits for the child are more when he himself decides to wean when he is ready.
Moms who couldn’t continue breastfeeding due to physical, emotional or reasons like work and career, don’t worry. You are a good parent even if you don’t breastfeed. Opting to formula feed or weaning before the child is ready due to various reasons doesn’t make you a bad parent. But if you can carry on with long term nursing, you are doing good for your child.
Hope you now got an idea of the benefits of extended breastfeeding and how to carry it forward.
Did you have pressure to stop nursing before your child is ready?
How long did you breastfeed your child? What difficulties did you face?
Share with us in the comments.