My first baby weaned herself at about 15 months old. One morning, I asked whether she wanted to nurse or have oats and she answered, clear as anything, “Oats.” I’m still breastfeeding my second baby, who at the time of this writing is 18 months old. He shows no signs of wanting to stop nursing and asks for mama milk at least a couple of times each day.
In the United States, extended breastfeeding is generally considered any breastfeeding beyond one year, so both my babies would qualify. But according to the World Health Organization, it’s recommended that children be breastfed exclusively for six months and then, along with complementary foods, until at least two years of age. Indeed, breastfeeding beyond a year is much more common and less taboo in other places. For instance, the World Health Organization reports that more than 3 in 5 people are still breastfeeding at two years in 20 percent of countries in Africa. No countries in the Americas report more than 60 percent breastfeeding at two years.
Benefits of Breastfeeding Beyond One Year
In a paper called “Extended Breastfeeding and the Law,” lawyer Elizabeth Baldwin, who worked for years on breastfeeding rights and as a La Leche League leader, wrote, “Breastfeeding is a warm and loving way to meet the needs of toddlers and young children. It not only perks them up and energizes them; it also soothes the frustrations, bumps and bruises, and daily stresses of early childhood. In addition, nursing past infancy helps little ones make a gradual transition to childhood.”
But it’s not just the emotional support that’s a benefit to breastfeeding an older baby or toddler. For your toddler, breastfeeding is great nutrition. It’s digestible and chock full of yummy fats, sugars, and proteins. Depending upon how much nursing your toddler does, it could be a larger or smaller part of their diet—really anything along this spectrum is okay. And breastmilk provides an immune boost at any age because the antibodies in your breastmilk continue to be shared with your child. That immune support in light of the COVID-19 pandemic is one reason that I’ve continued to nurse my toddler.
And there are benefits for the breastfeeding parent, too. In a TEDMED talk given in 2014, physician E. Bimla Schwarz describes research that highlights the vastly decreased risk of heart disease in women who’ve breastfed for at least six months. And there’s also evidence that breastfeeding lowers your risk of ovarian and breast cancer, as well as autoimmune diseases like lupus and rheumatoid arthritis.
Coping with Extended Breastfeeding Stigma
As discussed above, breastfeeding older children is often considered taboo and can lead to even more judgment than breastfeeding a little baby—which can come with plenty. The key to dealing with pushback, whether it’s coming from strangers, extended family, or friends, is to remember that you’re in charge of deciding what’s best for your family. It also might make sense to do most of your nursing at home—not to make other people more comfortable, but because toddlers are distractible, busy, and hard to pin down for a breastfeeding session while you’re out and about. This strategy just comes with the bonus of having fewer people around who will throw shade at you for feeding your kid the way you want to.
If you’re facing judgment about breastfeeding an older child, feel free to refer the judgmental person to the first part of this blog post with all the benefits of extended breastfeeding, too.
Weaning When It’s Time
Some of the pushback against extended breastfeeding that I’ve heard is that it’s harder to wean a verbal child. While that might be true, if you commit to breastfeeding as long as it’s working for both you and your kiddo and then stopping when it’s no longer working for one or both of you, you’ll be able to figure it out. And it could go the other direction: if you trust your child to understand why you need to stop nursing and explain it clearly, it’s possible that a verbal child will do better with weaning than a pre-verbal kid.
One thing that will help with weaning is putting boundaries in place throughout your nursing relationship. If you don’t like it when your seven-month-old repeatedly pops off the breast to look around, make a point to nurse them as often as possible in a distraction-free space. If you prefer only to nurse your 14-month-old before bedtime and naptime, don’t give in when they’re screaming for milk before dinner. Offer cuddles and their water cup and empathize that it’s very hard to want something and not get it. If you set up these kind of boundaries, weaning won’t be nearly as painful.