Extended breastfeeding, or breastfeeding beyond the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended 1 year of age is still far from the norm in the United States, although there are many reasons why a mother and child may choose to continue their nursing relationship. Of course, any amount of breastmilk your baby receives is wonderful, but the benefits do not suddenly stop at a certain point or a certain age. Your reasons for choosing to wean or not wean are your own and are very personal. However, here are some common reasons why mothers may choose to continue to nurse beyond a year.
1. Continues to Provide Nutritional Benefits
Despite the misconception out there that the nutritional benefits go away when your baby starts eating solid foods - or at six months - your baby continues to get nutrition and hydration from your breastmilk. Your baby may start eating solids with gusto at six months, or may just be a light eater until after her first birthday. However, if you are still breastfeeding, you don’t need to be concerned. Your little one will continue to get what she needs from you.
2. Provides Immune System Benefits
One of the most amazing things about your breast milk is that it helps your baby to stay healthy until her immune system is mature. Your breast milk does this by providing protective immune system factors through your breast milk to things that your baby has been exposed to in her environment. This continues for as long as your child is nursing. Oftentimes, when everyone in the family is sick, the nursing child will be the only one that is healthy! This can be a great help when older siblings have returned to school or your nursing toddler has started preschool or daycare.
3. A Safe and Nurturing Space
To a little person, the world is big and unknown. There is a lot to learn, a whole language to learn, feelings to navigate, people to learn about. It can all be a little overwhelming. The one thing that can be a constant in a child’s life is his parents. You can be that safe space for him to return to over and over again. The hormones that you both benefit from during breastfeeding calm and soothe you both. Your presence and your milk can be just what a little one needs to soothe a boo-boo or hurt feelings.
4. Health Benefits for Mom
Research has shown that breastfeeding reduces the risk of many diseases in women. Your risk of breast and ovarian cancers are reduced. These risks are reduced in a cumulative way - meaning the longer you nurse (adding together all of your breastfeeding time) the more you reduce your risk. There have been some studies that have also shown reductions in the risks for cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and rheumatoid arthritis.
5. Boosts Brain Development for Baby
Babies brains need lots of stimulation and excellent nutrition in order to thrive. Your breast milk provides them with the nutrition they need and the stimulus they get from being at your breast - seeing your face, respond to you talking to them, touching you, seeing the world from different angles and directions - all these things help to develop and stimulate their brain. In fact, they help so significantly that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that if you bottle feed, that you vary the position throughout feedings and that you make sure to interact with your baby while feeding them.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that you exclusively breastfeed for the first 6 months, and then for at least the first year while the baby is trying out solid foods, and then continuing for as long as the mother and child wish. The World Health Organization recommends at least 2 years. How long you choose to breastfeed your baby is a personal decision that is based on many, many factors and is something only you and your family can decide. Know that if you choose to breastfeed beyond 1, 2, or 3 years, you have the support of many on your side. You can let your love and milk flow!