Extended Breastfeeding—What to Know About Breastfeeding Beyond a Year
In the U.S., breastfeeding rates have gone up recently, with more than 80% of mothers breastfeeding for any amount of time. About half of them go on to breastfeed for at least 6 months, about a third make it to a year, and one in seven—about 15%—continue past 18 months. Of course, just because most American moms don’t breastfeed past a year, that doesn’t mean they have to throw in the proverbial towel (or the nursing tops) at 12 months on the dot.
While the milk in your fridge may have an expiration date…there’s no expiration date on breastfeeding! Breastfeeding beyond a year is known as extended breastfeeding, and it's actually pretty common around the world.
Globally, the average weaning age is over 3 years of age. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends breastfeeding for two years and suggests that it’s “natural” to wean even after two years. Stateside, experts had long recommended exclusive breastfeeding for 6 months and to continue some breastfeeding for at least one year—until recently when the American Academy of Pediatrics shifted their guidelines to match the WHO's two-year recommendation.
Now, does that mean that everyone must breastfeed for two years (or even one). Of course not! But if you do want to extend your breastfeeding journey beyond a year, you should feel empowered and supported in your choice. Here's some help...
The Benefits of Extended Breastfeeding
If we look at how all human babies have survived over the millennia, breastfeeding was key! Breast milk provides the perfect nutrition for babies with the right fats, proteins, and immune boosters. Plus, breastfeeding can be a convenient, inexpensive, pure, clean, way to give your baby those nutrients…while also possibly reducing the risk of breast and ovarian cancer. Even without the health benefits, it’s a beautiful way to bond with your little one.
The Challenges of Extended Breastfeeding
There aren’t serious health drawbacks to extended breastfeeding, but there are hurdles that make breastfeeding beyond a year challenging, and there are plenty of reasons why someone might feel it’s in their or their child’s interest to stop breastfeeding before a year.
For one, breastfeeding literally takes a lot out of a parent! Modern parents are juggling more than ever—with less help than ever—and breastfeeding can demand a lot of time and energy. Not to mention, after 9 months of gestation and then another year-plus of breastfeeding, you might want to have complete control over your body again!
There are also logistical challenges of extended breastfeeding. Lack of pumping accommodations might make breastfeeding too hard to keep up with once back at work. A baby may be too distracted or may have lost interest in breastfeeding, or you may want to get pregnant again (usually you start to ovulate again once you start adding other foods to you baby’s diet). Occasionally parents are told to stop breastfeeding because the baby may develop severe dental caries (tooth decay) if on the breast for prolonged feeds (meaning suckling for 30+ minutes over and over during the night).
Because extended breastfeeding isn’t the cultural norm in the States, parents may feel embarrassed or face social pressure to stop. People tend to have a lot of opinions about breastfeeding!
How to Handle Extended Breastfeeding Criticism
Remember, you don’t owe anyone an explanation…breastfeeding is one of the most natural things you can do. When dealing with naysayers close to you, you can be considerate and hear their concerns, and then you can let them know that, according to medical experts, it’s completely normal for a child to breastfeed beyond a year (and that around the world many parents breastfeed two years…or more!).
You can also fill them in on all of the benefits of breastfeeding for both parents and babies. Or, if you’re feeling a little cheeky, tell your critics that your doctor said your child has a special condition that makes your milk the recommended nutrition…and that condition is called infancy!
Bottom line: Don’t let your critics deter you. If you love extended breastfeeding, feel free to keep going! Breastfeeding past a year can be a wonderful way to bond with your baby while offering some supplemental nutrients. And, if it feels like a slog, consider that it might be time to make a plan to wean. Whether you decide to stick with extended breastfeeding or stop, make sure you’re making the decision that feels right to you!
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Disclaimer: The information on our site is NOT medical advice for any specific person or condition. It is only meant as general information. If you have any medical questions and concerns about your child or yourself, please contact your health provider.