Here’s What You Need to Know About Extended Breastfeeding

While many of us take the time to painstakingly research breastfeeding before giving birth-interviewing friends about whether or not its right for us, googling how to manage to breastfeeding and work, and looking into just how healthy nursing really is-few of us devote time to deciding how long we’ll breastfeed our babies. This may be in part because the idea of starting a breastfeeding relationship with your baby is so daunting in the beginning, especially with your first baby. You may find yourself reluctant to consider a timeline because, after hearing a few horror stories, you’re too busy praying that breastfeeding will work for you.

And yet, breastfeeding isn’t a short-term investment. It’s a choice that we make with the long-term health of our babies in mind. Once you’ve delivered your little one and have gotten through the bumps and trials of the first few weeks of nursing, it might be time to consider whether or not breastfeeding after twelve months, also known as extended breastfeeding, is right for you.

 What Science Says About Extended Nursing and Natural Weaning

Many scientists have looked to other mammals in the world to find rules around extended breastfeeding. Here’s a few things of note found by Katherine Dettwyler, PhD of the Department of Anthropology at Texas A and M University:

  • Non-human primates tend to wean naturally around the time they get their first few permanent molars. Human offspring see their first molars between the ages of 5 and 6.
  • The larger the adult mammal, the longer the breastfeeding age tends to be. Gorillas and chimps, who are not only closely related to humans in size but also in genetic makeup, nurse about six times the lengths of their mother’s pregnancy. In humans, this equals about 4 years.
  • Large mammals tend to nurse their infants until they have quadrupled their birth weight. In humans, this occurs around two to three years.

If we take into account this biological perspective, Americans are clearly being more influenced by social norms than biological imperatives. Some reports suggest the age of natural weaning is about 4.8 years, but there just aren’t enough clear statistics around the world. So, just how long are women around the world nursing?

 Extended Breastfeeding Around the World

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends mothers nurse continue to nurse their babies after twelve months, the World Health Organization suggests at least two years. Both the AAP and WHO encourage fostering a nursing relationship for as long as both the mother and baby are comfortable.

Children wean naturally on their own, and nursing after twelve months is a normal occurrence around the world. UNICEF provides annual reports on the status of the world’s children and includes information on the percentage of women breastfeeding after 12 months. In 2014, about 26% of mothers in the United States are breastfeeding at 12 months, while those numbers are fairly higher elsewhere including as high as 95% in Nepal. In Norway, women almost always begin breastfeeding and about 46% of them continue to do so after twelve months. Do the women in these countries know something that we do not? Is there a health benefit to nursing after twelve months?

 The Benefits of Nursing Beyond Twelve Months

We know that breastfeeding your baby is an excellent way to provide them with a robust immune system, healthy weight gain, resistance to allergies, and so much more, but do these benefits continue after a year?

At 12 months old, children’s immune system is only operating at about 60%. The immune-boosting power of breast milk keeps working after the first year. Since your baby’s immune system isn’t as strong as it will be when it’s fully developed at around age 6, the live antibodies in your breast milk continue to protect your baby from illness.

Breast milk provides optimal hydration for your toddler during times of stress and illness. Breast milk continues to be easy to digest and when your little one is sick or too stressed to properly eat and drink, the comfort of nursing provides an emotionally satisfying way to nourish their bodies.

When breastfeeding between 12 and 23 months, just two cups of breast milk a day provides your child with nearly 30% of their energy requirements, 94% of their Vitamin B12 requirements, 76% of their daily folate, and so much more. After 12 months, the actual nutrients found in breast milk continue to be an enormous benefit to any child’s diet.

Some studies have found a link between longer nursing relationships and healthy social development. In fact, shorter nursing relationships may reflect a negative mental health trajectory through adolescence.

 Making Extended Breastfeeding Work for You

There are a lot of reasons women wish to stop nursing after 12 months. Often, it’s simply to get some rest at night. Many babies continue to wake at night when breastfeeding is an option, and for mothers who experience difficulty falling back asleep, this may get old fast. If you find yourself in this circumstance, night weaning is certainly an option. Try nursing before bed and ask your partner to soothe your baby back to sleep for a few nights. This may be distressing for some children, so consider cutting out one nursing session at a time and prepare to nurse a bit more frequently during the day for a week or so.

Toddlers are a bit wigglier than babies and this sometimes makes nursing tricky, especially in public. Give your child something to hold or look at while they nurse, like a soft nursing necklace or a stuffed animal. Be firm with your toddler if they get rough or refuse to stay still. If they refuse to be gentle while nursing, take them off the breast until the can calm down, reminding them to “relax.”

Remember, breastfeeding after a year has a ton of benefits and that extended breastfeeding won’t make weaning more difficult. In fact, many women say that the children they allowed to wean naturally or after those first twelve months were much easier to wean. In the end, your relationship with your baby is very special and that uniqueness should be protected. When it comes time to wean, do what is right for you and your little one. Trust your toddler and trust yourself.

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