When I had my child, I had no idea how long I would be able to breastfeed. Nineteen months later, I’m still breastfeeding (although thankfully not nearly as often as in the beginning!). Extended breastfeeding, or breastfeeding longer than the baby’s first 12 months, has its ups and downs. Read on to learn whether it could be right for you.
Is Extended Breastfeeding Normal?
Using a term like “extended breastfeeding” can lead some parents to wonder whether this practice is normal or healthy. In the United States, it’s not very common for babies to breastfeed longer than 1 year. In that sense, it’s not “normal.” But there’s nothing physically or developmentally harmful about continuing to breastfeed as long as both you and your child choose to. In many other countries, it’s perfectly common to breastfeed past a baby’s first birthday. The World Health Organization recommends breastfeeding “for up to two years of age or beyond.”
Extended Breastfeeding Pros
- Nutritional benefits: Although breastfeeding doesn’t provide the bulk of your baby’s calories or nutrition anymore, it still contains beneficial vitamins and hormones. Your milk is no less good for your baby now that he or she is older.
- Antibody boost: Breastfeeding a sick baby can help provide fluids, and your body provides specific antibodies to fight your child’s ailment.
- Relaxing cuddle time: Breastfeeding can be a powerful source of security, emotional connection, and bonding. You and your baby may both appreciate its calming effect at the end of the day, or in an unfamiliar environment like a hotel. Heading to a quiet spot to nurse may even head off a toddler tantrum.
- Child-led weaning: Every baby is different. Some toddlers wean abruptly, and others gradually. Some parents say that letting your child determine the timetable for weaning promotes healthy feelings of security and control over their environment.
Extended Breastfeeding Cons
- Less social support: Now that breastfeeding is no longer a critical source of nutrition for your child, some people may feel that there is no need for you to continue. It is possible that you may attract more negative attention for nursing an older baby or toddler, especially in public.
- Pain or discomfort: If you tend to develop cracked nipples, mastitis, thrush, or other breastfeeding problems, you may be reluctant to extend the breastfeeding relationship. Avoiding intimacy or feeling overwhelmed because you are “touched out” by the end of the day is another valid reason to consider weaning. A lactation consultant may be able to help you resolve some issues. If nothing works, or you simply don’t want to continue breastfeeding, it’s okay to give yourself permission to stop.
- Older babies and toddlers have teeth: Most of the time, this doesn’t make a difference. From time to time, especially if my toddler is falling asleep, an imperfect latch can lead to some biting.
- Potentially reduced fertility: If you’re thinking about another baby, you may be anxious to know whether nursing your toddler will make it harder to conceive. Breastfeeding resource Kellymom says that once you’ve reestablished a regular menstrual cycle, your fertility is likely back to normal. Some women may find that breastfeeding delays their menstrual cycle for a year or more. Others may take longer to return to full fertility even after they resume menstruation. For many women, however, breastfeeding throughout a new pregnancy is an achievable goal, if they desire it.
Ultimately, it is up to you to decide whether extended breastfeeding is something you’d like to pursue. Don’t let yourself be pressured to stop before you’re ready, but also don’t feel that you must continue breastfeeding if you’re anxious to wean. You are the only one who can truly understand how the pros and cons add up for you and your baby.