Extended breastfeeding… What is that?
Extended beyond what?
The answer really depends on who you ask. In most western countries today, it is considered normal and great if a mom breastfeeds her baby for up to 1 year. After that, it starts to slowly become more controversial, and the mom also is said to be doing extended breastfeeding.
One can, of course, speculate about why anyone outside a baby’s immediate family would care at all for how long a baby is breastfed. It is not like the mom is feeding her baby Coca-Cola – breast milk is very healthy; at least that should be something we can all agree on!
But speculations are not the purpose of this article. Instead, I want to share with you the benefits of extended breastfeeding as well as talk a little bit about the challenges of breastfeeding your toddler.
The Benefits & Challenges of Extended Breastfeeding
- What is Extended Breastfeeding?
- What Are The Benefits To Extended Breastfeeding?
- What Are The Challenges of Extended Nursing?
What is Extended Breastfeeding?
Whenever the subject of breastfeeding comes up, new or expectant parents often hear the term extended breastfeeding and find themselves wondering what exactly does that term mean. The answer is not as simple as one might suppose since breastfeeding in some parts of the world continue until a child is 2, 3, or sometimes 4 years of age.
However, in the US and many other western countries, in particular, mothers are more or less expected to wean their child from their breast no later than one year of age. So when you hear the term extended nursing it simply means continuing to breastfeed your child when they become a toddler or until they are ready to wean themselves from the breast.
What Are The Benefits To Extended Breastfeeding?
Although formula companies and even some doctors encourage mothers to stop breastfeeding at 6 months to a year telling them breastfeeding past this point has no real benefits for your child, they are wrong.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of a child’s life and continued breastfeeding for at least a year with the addition of nutritious complementary foods. Beyond that, they recommend breastfeeding for as long as both the mother and a child mutually desire.
World Health Organization (WHO) also recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life. After six months, solid foods should be introduced, but breastfeeding should continue for the next 2 years and beyond.
Benefits for the Child
Extended breastfeeding has many benefits for your child.
Breastmilk will contain protein, fat, and other nutritionally important elements no matter how long you breastfeed or how old your child is. Therefore, it is not true that breastmilk loses its nutritional quality after a certain period of breastfeeding.
In one longitudinal study that focused on the composition of human milk in the second year postpartum, participants who were still breastfeeding or expressing milk at least three to four times a day provided milk samples from 11 to 17 months postpartum. The results showed that concentrations of total protein, lactoferrin, lysozyme, IgA, sodium, and oligosaccharides increased over time, while concentrations of zinc and calcium decreased. There was no observed change in lactose concentration. Overall, the findings of the study suggest that the macronutrient value of human milk is stable or increasing during the second year postpartum.
Sense of Security and Comfort
As a child develops and becomes more independent, they are constantly trying new things and exploring. Extended breastfeeding can provide your child with a sense of security and comfort that allows them to meet the new challenges in their young life with more self-assurance as they feel the emotional support to move forward.
Extended breastfeeding allows your child to wean when they are developmentally ready. This allows your toddler to move ahead with more confidence and fewer worries than when forcing them to do something they are neither physically nor emotionally ready to deal with.
Toddlers who continue to breastfeed after the age of one usually suffer from fewer infections and colds than children who are not breastfed or are weaned early.
Human milk complements and boosts a child’s immune system for as long as the child breastfeeds. According to some sources, some immune factors found in breastmilk that protect the baby against infections are present in greater amounts in the child’s second year of life than in the first.
Benefits for the Mom
Breastfeeding lowers the risks and protects the mother from certain diseases. These benefits continue as long as the mother breastfeeds.
AAP emphasizes continued benefits from breastfeeding for the mother when breastfeeding goes beyond one year and up to two years. These benefits include protection against diabetes, high blood pressure, and breast and ovarian cancers.
Relationship with the baby
Breastfeeding positively impacts the bond between the mother and a child, and it can help foster attachment.
Breastfeeding soothes and calms a child, but it is also often a time when a mother calms down, relaxes, shuts off everything else, and focuses on her baby and their time together.
In addition, the general benefits of breastfeeding, which you can read about here, continue to be important and relevant.
What Are The Challenges of Extended Nursing?
Of course, extended breastfeeding is not without challenges but being prepared to meet these challenges will make the experience all the more beneficial for both you and your child. Here are some of the challenges you may face when you decide to extend the length of time you breastfeed.
Public criticism is probably the biggest challenge most mothers face when deciding that extended nursing is right for their children and themselves. You may receive odd looks, comments, and even outright criticism from family, friends, and complete strangers, all of who have been trained to believe that early weaning is best for a child.
Difficulty Breastfeeding in Public
No doubt, breastfeeding in public is more challenging with a toddler than with a newborn. A small child is relatively still, while a toddler never sits still! So, in addition to general public criticism, you might find it quite stressful to risk showing your breasts completely as your toddler jumps around in your arms.
Unless your toddler is used to sitting very peacefully in your lap while breastfeeding, keeping a routine to breastfeed at home, for example, might be a good idea if you find the situation embarrassing.
Weaning can become more difficult
Some parents feel that weaning becomes more difficult the longer they continue to breastfeed. This is especially true if the child uses breastfeeding as a way to get parental attention. However, you can use various means to avoid this problem, including giving your child the attention they crave in other ways.
Breastfeeding while Pregnant
It is possible to continue breastfeeding even while you are pregnant. It is always advisable to discuss it with your doctor, but if your pregnancy is without complications, continuing to breastfeed during that time should be completely safe.
However, sometimes the volume or the taste of your milk may change when you are pregnant, and your toddler may not like it. Also, your breasts and nipples may be more tender, so breastfeeding may be a bit more painful or uncomfortable during pregnancy. Sometimes changing the child’s position may help.
If you decide to breastfeed during pregnancy, make sure to eat properly, drink plenty of fluids, and rest, especially during the first trimester when you may struggle with morning sickness. Remember that breastfeeding takes up your energy on top of pregnancy.
Are there any Risks Related to Extended Breastfeeding?
It is important to emphasize that, until now, there is no evidence that extended breastfeeding is harmful to the baby or the mother. The American Academy of Pediatrics also confirms this and states that no evidence shows breastfeeding into the third year of life or longer leads to psychological or developmental harm for the baby.
However, mothers may be worried about some things when deciding on extended breastfeeding. So, are those myths, or is there some truth to them?
Extended breastfeeding doesn’t mean a toddler should be exclusively or predominately breastfed. Exclusive breastfeeding is recommended for the first six months, after which a child should be gradually introduced to a variety of nutritious foods in order to get enough of all the nutrients their body needs to achieve optimal health and growth.
If your toddler is eating nutritious, healthy, and balanced meals, including iron-rich foods, alongside breastfeeding, prolonged breastfeeding won’t increase the likelihood of iron deficiency.
When it comes to iron deficiency for the mother, it is not caused by breastfeeding, as breastfeeding takes very little iron from a mother’s body. As always, it is important that you eat a variety of healthy and nutritious foods. If you have a history of iron deficiency, you should talk to your doctor about taking a supplement.
Getting a Child to Eat Solid Foods
Extended breastfeeding shouldn’t be a major issue when it comes to your child eating solid foods. As mentioned previously, complementary foods should be gradually introduced into a child’s diet after six months of age. By the time your child is a toddler, you should start offering solids a few times a day, and breastfeeding can continue in addition to those meals.
If you think breastfeeding is getting in the way of your toddler eating well during meals, consider changing the times when you breastfeed so that it doesn’t interfere with eating. For example, you may want to only breastfeed before nap time or night sleep.
It is not uncommon for a woman’s sex drive to decrease during breastfeeding, and the reason can usually be found in hormone fluctuations. After delivery and during breastfeeding, oxytocin and prolactin levels increase while estrogen levels decrease, and these changes may impact your desire for sex. Higher levels of oxytocin and prolactin lead to women getting a great deal of their need for affection met through breastfeeding. This may result in them not seeking pleasure and affection from their partners as often. Another issue may be vaginal dryness, tightness, or tenderness resulting from low estrogen levels.
Although the length of time needed for the hormones to get back to normal is very individual, it is common that this issue starts resolving once a baby starts eating more solids. With the introduction of other foods besides breastmilk, you will gradually start breastfeeding less frequently, which will help your hormones get back to normal.
Although breastfeeding may impact fertility, it is a myth that it is impossible to get pregnant while breastfeeding.
A return of period after delivery is influenced by several factors, such as maternal age, as well as the duration and frequency of breastfeeding.
Changes in breastfeeding patterns often result in period return. Therefore, for many women, the ability to get pregnant again returns when they no longer breastfeed exclusively or when their baby starts to sleep longer during the night.
Once the baby gets introduced to solids, the frequency of breastfeeding and the milk supply will likely decrease, which increases fertility hormones and the likelihood of ovulation and pregnancy. Some mothers will notice that their period returned when their babies started sleeping longer stretches at night. In those cases, even that small change in breastfeeding frequency was enough to reduce the effect that breastfeeding has on reducing estrogen levels.
However, as mentioned, it is hard to say exactly when the period will return as this is very different for every woman.
Tips to make extended breastfeeding work
Extended breastfeeding isn’t all or nothing. There are no rules or recommendations on how often to breastfeed a toddler. It is okay if you don’t want to feed on demand at this point. You and your toddler will probably already have a rhythm that works for both of you.
Some women may only breastfeed once a day at this point, others may choose to breastfeed in the morning and the evening, and some may breastfeed their toddlers even more often if they can. Nighttime feedings are something you can continue if it works for you, but it is not necessary to breastfeed your toddler during the night if you feel like you don’t want to keep waking up to breastfeed.
When it comes to breastfeeding your toddler in public, it is, again, an individual decision. Some women may feel like breastfeeding in public would put them under too much pressure or make them anxious because of possible criticism. Other women won’t worry about criticism and may feel completely okay with breastfeeding their toddler in public.
Remember to do what you feel is best for you and your child. If you find yourself in a situation where someone criticizes your decision to breastfeed your child at an age your culture finds inappropriate, remind yourself that you are doing the best you can for your child.
A growing body of evidence supports extended breastfeeding, and more and more women are deciding to breastfeed longer than the minimum. It may be helpful to surround yourself with like-minded women who can offer support and with whom you may exchange experiences.
When should I wean?
When to wean is a personal decision, and you should decide what you think is best for you and your child. Some women decide to breastfeed until the child naturally loses interest and stops asking. Many toddlers wean naturally between 2-4 years. You are the only one who should decide if you are ready to wait until your toddler weans naturally or if you’d want to stop breastfeeding before that happens.
Just remember that extended breastfeeding is a personal choice and each parent must decide what is right for their child and themselves.
Please share your thoughts on and experiences with extended breastfeeding by leaving a comment below.