Extended breastfeeding is a term used when you are breastfeeding a child that is more than a year old. In other countries, feeding a child beyond the first 12 months is common. For example, the number of women who breastfeed their children beyond 12 months is: 99% in Nepal, 98% in Malawi, 97% in Zambia, 96% in Ghana,… go to this UNICEF site for more worldwide breastfeeding statistics.
In North America, breastfeeding an older child is somewhat rare. Perhaps “rare” is not the right word. It certainly occurs, but you don’t SEE it very often because women nurse their children in private.
Some North Americans perceive extended breastfeeding as being “not right”. They have the misconception that there is a sexual relationship (or the potential of a sexual relationship) between mother and child. North Americans are just not used to seeing an older child latched onto his mother’s breast.
In fact, there is nothing wrong with extended breastfeeding. The World Health Organization recommends that mothers breastfeed their children exclusively for the first six months and then continues to breastfeed until age 2 or beyond.
Benefits of Extended Breastfeeding
The benefits of extended breastfeeding are the same as those for breastfeeding a baby under one year of age. Breast milk contains
– nutrients (for energy and growth),
– antibodies (for immunity) and
– vitamins (for growth and development).
Thus, extended breastfeeding continue to give him the nutritional benefits of breast milk.
Breast milk may not be crucial for an older child since North American have relatively good diets (compared to for example, the diet of a child in a poor, developing country). However, extended breastfeeding offers emotional benefits too. It:
– soothes a child when he is upset or sad;
– gives a child comfort when he is sick or unwell;
– allows him to connect & bond with you after a day of play & learning;
– allows s child become independent and have more self confidence before he is weaned.
Problems with Extended Breastfeeding
- The first and foremost problem that mothers experience when breastfeeding an older child is disapproval. Most people in North America are surprised to find that you are still breastfeeding a child older than one year old. Friends and family may express concern and ask questions which inadvertently make you feel bad about continuing to breastfeed. Strangers in public spaces may be offended at your decision to breastfeed an older child and voice their concern in a harsh and accusing tone.
To avoid these problems, you can breastfeed an older child in the privacy of your own home (only). This will allow you to continue breastfeeding without having to deal with criticism. Teach your child to say something else (like “I want a hug at home”) instead of yelling “Mommy, I want breast milk now!”
It is difficult to explain to your child that breastfeeding is okay and normal, yet you are both “hiding” when you nurse. The best way to deal with this is to explain that sometimes it is okay for babies to run around naked because they are babies and don’t know any better. Older children cannot run around naked because parts of their bodies are private. Similarly, you can explain that babies can breastfeed anywhere because they do not know any better. Older children should know that breastfeeding is a private activity.
- Another problem is that it is often very difficult to wean an older child. He understands that your breasts are available – they have been available for as long as he remembers – so why stop now? He does not understand or want to relinquish that special relationship between you and him. Unlike babies, an older child is more verbose and can whine, argue, and negotiate for days and days.
Some children can be bribed. For example, he will stop nursing and in exchange you will buy him a substantial toy that he has wanted for a long time.
For those who cannot be convinced to wean, you can try to initiate weaning during a major event such as
– going on a long trip,
– family or friends coming to visit and stay,
– him starting preschool or kindergarten.
Lizzy breastfed her two children beyond 2 years of age. Neither of them wanted to give up the breast but her children were not gaining weight (failure to thrive). The pediatrician believed that the children were getting their nutrients exclusively from breast milk. But, at 2 years old, breast milk alone is not sufficient. Lizzy had to wean them and encourage them to eat table foods.
- read about extended breastfeeding from La Leche League
- photos courtesy of 007 Breasts
- read how to prepare healthy baby foods here
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