There’s no denying that when it comes to feeding your baby, breast is best, especially early in life. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends “exclusive breastfeeding for approximately the first six months and support for breastfeeding for the first year and beyond as long as mutually desired by mother and child.” The World Health Organization also recommends exclusive breastfeeding for 6 months, and continuing to breastfeed for 2 years or longer.
While the majority of breastfeeding American moms wean before their baby turns one, this isn’t true everywhere. Across the world, the average age for weaning breastfed babies is after their fourth birthday. This practice is known as extended breastfeeding, and despite this practice not being as common in American culture, the research has shown solid benefits.
Benefits of extended breastfeeding
The health benefits of breastfeeding don’t stop after the first year. Studies have shown that breastfed toddlers get sick less often than their peers. The American Academy of Family Physicians notes that children weaned before two years of age are at increased risk of illness, as the immune system is only 60 percent developed by age one.
There are also health benefits for mom. Research shows that moms who nurse longer have reduced risks of breast cancer, ovarian cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, high blood pressure, heart disease, and diabetes.
In addition, studies show that children who nurse beyond two years benefit from the close mother/child bond and are more socially well adjusted. And when traveling with your toddler, breastfeeding can be a convenient way to go—no bottles or sippy cups needed!
There can be some social obstacles when breastfeeding a toddler. Since it is not a common practice in the US, extended breastfeeding can garner some unwanted attention. Time magazine created a national controversy when it ran a cover image of a mother feeding her older toddler. Some moms who practice extended breastfeeding report receiving comments and stares if they choose to feed their child in public. However, many toddlers are able to defer their desire to nurse until they are home, and many mothers employ “nursing manners” that toddlers are able to abide by in these situations.
Some mothers may have received comments that a toddler who is still nursing will develop abnormal attachments or sexual associations with their mother. None of this has been shown to be true! Again, mutually desired extended breastfeeding has only been shown to be associated with beneficial effects, so if you harbor any worries or concerns, rest assured you are not harming your child.
Reviewed by Jennifer Lincoln, March 2020
- While the majority of American moms stop breastfeeding before their baby turns one, the average age for weaning worldwide is beyond four years old.
- Studies have shown that breastfeeding toddlers get sick less often than their peers
- Children who nurse beyond two years also benefit from the close mother-child bond and are more socially well adjusted.
- Research shows that moms who practice extended breastfeeding have a reduced risk of breast cancer, ovarian cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes.