18 months and counting. To think that I didn’t expect to make it past month 1 after those first few painful weeks. This is what is referred to as “extended” breastfeeding. Extended breastfeeding is generally used to describe breastfeeding past one year of age. It has a name because, to put it simply, it’s not the norm. Like in many countries in Western Africa and Northern Europe, for example, it should be allowed to be the norm. I believe that it could be if people were better educated about the benefits of breastfeeding beyond the first year of life. Unfortunately, the representation of breastfeeding and especially of extended breastfeeding is not as it should be.
Media representation of extended breastfeeding
Breastfeeding a toddler is often viewed as a sort of deviant act. It’s depicted in a comedic fashion by Hollywood. See this Grown Ups clip, for example, where a four year old is asking to nurse. It’s viewed as strange for a toddler to want the closeness that comes with breastfeeding from his mother (because let’s face it, at that age, a toddler won’t be breastfeeding for nutrition, even if they’re getting it). It’s considered strange for a breastfeeding child to be able to ask to breastfeed.
The media also sexualises breastfeeding particularly where it involves a toddler. The mothers’ breasts become the focus and particularly where it is a son, rather than a daughter, mothers can be made to feel like continuing to breastfeed makes them perverts of some sort.
Contrary to society’s beliefs…
There are many myths associated with breastfeeding in general (and I’ve written about some of them HERE) but there are also a lot of misconceptions associated with extended breastfeeding.
For example, extended breastfeeding does not lead to a child being malnourished or sick. Early studies that suggested this have been rubbished as it was realized that the research was not properly conducted. Rather, some studies have found that the reverse is true: malnourishment and illness can lead to breastfeeding for a prolonged period of time. That makes total sense. Colds, flu and many side effects of teething can leave a toddler so ill and unhappy that they’ll be able to stomach nothing but breastmilk (even if only for the comfort of it). That’s when mummy’s left with no choice but to temporarily abandon any hopes of full weaning.
Some people believe that extended nursing leads to a child acting out of control. If you’re a mom considering extended breastfeeding and worried about that, page 1508 of this awesome article is a good one to read to ask yourself some questions. Questions that may lead you to re-think your apprehension.
Let’s not forget about the belief that extended breastfeeding will lead to saggy boobs. It may turn out to be true for you depending on many factors. If this is one of your concerns, there are a few steps you can take to mitigate it. There are also exercises to bring your boobs back to life if your baby or toddler has ravaged them!
You may have heard this somewhere before: extended breastfeeding to delayed speech. There’s no proof behind it. Infact, the opposite has been suggested as true. Breastfeeding guides speech improvement by teaching them coordination of the mouth, jaw and tongue (Source). The only other researched school of thought is that extended breastfeeding may have no impact at all on speech.
What women tend to experience when they undertake extended breastfeeding
Being stigmatized by family, friends and wider society
Many moms who breastfeed their toddlers are made to feel by family and friends as though they are somehow stunting their child’s blossoming independence. They may also be made to feel like they’re just lazy for not working hard at keeping their little one off their boob.
A lack of an ability to be discreet
Even if a mom is not put off by society’s opinions of her extended nursing, she may prefer to do so in a quiet and more private environment. This is not always available. Waiting till they’re in a preferable environment before breastfeeding each time may make it more difficult to continue for as long as a mom would like.
Boosts the immune system
This leads to a reduction in the chances of developing any allergies both in early years and later in life. Of course, it also means that they’re able to fight off infections more easily. Some studies even suggest that extended breastfeeding may prevent certain childhood cancers.
Reduces risk of certain cancers for you, Mummy.
The risk of breast cancer pre-menopause, for example, is found to be reduced.
Again, for you Mummy, easier weight loss.
We know about all those calories lost while breastfeeding.
Gives baby/toddler some downtime and provides any required security and comfort
A toddler may have a perfectly balanced diet but still crave the comfort of their mother’s bosom in times of illness of unfamiliar or scary situations. It’s a time when a toddler can have his/her mom’s attention or just feel close with mummy. Breastfeeding may also be the calmest moments of the day for an active and independent little toddler.
Higher cognitive levels for children who breastfeed for extended periods
Yes, it has indeed been found that children breastfed for extended periods have higher cognitive abilities.
“Of my three kids, I breastfed my youngest the longest — at 22 months. My advice for moms looking to breastfeed beyond the first year is to make sure you have ample support around you — whether family/friends, other nursing moms, or even an online group to turn to for encouragement. It can make all the difference.”
Ana @ Mummy’s Bundle
“I breastfed all three of my kids till they were 2-3 years old. It created such a sweet bond between us that is irreplaceable. For me, breastfeeding was much easier and convenient. Another great advantage is that my children rarely got sick during their first 3 years and I absolutely credit that to breast milk.”
Starr @ Mom Hacks 101
“I’ve breastfeeding my son for 28 months and counting until he self weans. My best advice for new moms who want to breastfeed is to get help early on. For me, as a new mom I had read books about breastfeeding but reality was very different than book knowledge and I had a lot of insecurities. While I was in the hospital after giving birth, there was the option of having the hospital’s lactation consultant stop by my room. I took them up on this and she helped make sure my baby was latched properly and gave me lots of helpful tips on ways to hold him for the best latching. Then after I went home, I had found a pediatrician practice who had a lactation consultant come two days a week to take appointments. This also allowed me to have it covered by my health insurance. This lactation consultant helped me with additional latching issues and did weighted feedings to ease my fears that my son wasn’t getting enough milk. Had I not had this early support, my self doubts would have most likely cut my breastfeeding journey short.”
Stephanie @ Mommysaurus
“Prepare yourself to deal with judgemental people making baseless comments about how it’s too long. Educate yourself so that when people say ridiculous things, you can reply from an informed place with all the benefits of long term breastfeeding.
Also, there is nothing wrong with comfort nursing. However, I had a baby who did not want to stop nursing all the time even past the point I where I felt done with breastfeeding. Comfort nursing was the hardest to end so its good to create other comfort habits for your child in tandem with nursing so that it’s not so hard to transition whenever you feel the time is right.”
Nava @ Yum Vegan Lunch Ideas
“Both my children were between two and three when they naturally decided they were done. Giving them the power to make that decision was one of the best decisions I have made as a Mom. I also went through nursing strikes with my my kids at much younger ages and I’m so glad we did not throw in the towel during that time because we would have missed out on so many beautiful moments.”
Stephanie @ Diapers & Cocktails
“I have had the privilege to breastfeed all 3 of my children. Each self-weaned after the age of one year. My youngest and longest breastfed baby is still going strong at 23 months. My advice to any breastfeeding mommy is to trust yourself. If something doesn’t feel right speak up and ask for help. Keep asking until someone listens. My son had an undiagnosed tongue tie that could have ended our breastfeeding relationship if I hadn’t sought the help of an IBCLC [International Board Certified Lactation Consultant]. My lactation consultant helped me with latching issues, sucking exercises, and weighted feeds after my son had his revision. If I hadn’t reached out for help I never would have been able to continue our breastfeeding journey as far as we have.”
Rebecca @ Collecting Clovers
“I breastfed my first daughter until 18 months and am continuing to breastfeed my second (currently 20 months). My advice to moms who hope to breastfeed past one year is to know your facts and be up on current research. You’re likely to experience judgement, but being comfortable that science is on your side can make you feel more confident. You can also educate anyone who questions your decision, because many who object to extended breastfeeding simply are not familiar with the science-backed benefits to extended breastfeeding.”
Cindy @ Living for the Sunshine
“I am currently breastfeeding my 3 year old and 1 year old. It is hard work and sometimes I feel completely touched out but along with the health benefits I am doing it for the attachment benefits. I really struggled with feeding my oldest at the beginning. We actually mix fed for the first few months so I may also be compensating for that somewhere in my subconscious! I would say to any Mom who is struggling with nursing but really wants to that even just pumping once a day to keep the supply going and offering to baby often is enough to leave the door open to recommence breastfeeding even months after it seems like the door has shut! My son and I are living proof!”
Kristen @ Nested Fox
If you’re a mom who can’t breastfeed for medical reasons, simply never wanted to breastfeed, or did not breastfeed for longer than a couple of days, don’t read this as an attack on your motherhood. It’s simply advocating for women who would like to be able to breastfeed for longer than others are used to.
If you want to continue nursing beyond a year but have been unsure, I hope you find this encouraging.