The importance of breast milk for infants and toddlers
Breast milk is species specific, so it's the best possible thing a human baby can consume. Health care workers prioritize babies being breastfed within one hour of birth to obtain the immune system benefits it offers.
Breastfeeding has everything a baby needs for nutrition and a strong immune system. With the help of IgA from the mother, it also helps them to form a relationship with their mother. There's no reason older infants and toddlers shouldn't continue to receive these benefits through extended breastfeeding.
Benefits of extended breastfeeding
All women are encouraged to breastfeed at the beginning as it’s been proven to give your baby one of the best starts in life. The advantages associated with breastfeeding keep going as you continue the process beyond infancy.
The nutritional components of breast milk really can’t be beaten. That’s why doctors recommend it exclusively for the first six months if this is an option for the mother. After this, breast milk can be alternated with age-appropriate meals and snacks. The composition of breast milk changes as time passes, so it will always have the right nutrients for your child, whatever their age.
Breast milk has hormones, proteins, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals. Your baby controls how much they want and stops when they're full and nourished. This habit is reflected in studies that have shown links between breastfeeding and lower rates of obesity and Type 2 diabetes in kids.
Breast milk also contains 200 fatty acid chains that are important for brain development. According to WHO, researchers found direct links between extended breastfeeding and higher IQ scores, emotional security, and better mental health.
It’s important for a mother to follow a healthy, well-balanced diet. The average woman should consume an additional 300 calories a day beyond baseline needs and an additional 500 calories a day when breastfeeding, including plenty of protein (70–75 grams a day), a low amount of simple carbohydrates and fats, and lots of fiber.
Boosted immunity and improved health
The antibodies in breast milk protect infants from common childhood illnesses like bacterial meningitis, diarrhea, respiratory tract infections, and late-onset sepsis. Lower infant mortality has also been noted for babies who breastfeed.
Continuing to breastfeed creates a healthy immune system beyond infancy. Breastfed toddlers are sick less often, and many attribute this to their extended intake of antibodies and adequate nourishment.
Breastfeeding also benefits your immunity. Breastfeeding for 12 months or more reduces a mother’s risk for breast cancer, ovarian cancer, high blood pressure, and diabetes. It's also associated with easier weight loss after pregnancy and reduced rates of depression.
It calms both a woman and her child
The extended breastfeeding psychological effects are very positive for mother and child. Breastfeeding and the skin-to-skin contact it requires help release oxytocin, prolactin, and serotonin — all "feel-good" hormones. These leave both of you feeling relaxed and bonded to each other.
Getting time to chill with your toddler is a treat. These kids are often loud and active, requiring you to run after them. Extending breastfeeding gives toddlers the opportunity to have some quiet time with Mom and also boosts their emotional well-being. Mom gets to sit down and experience the angelic side of their child for a few minutes.
Is there a 'right time' for weaning?
There’s no right or wrong time for weaning. Breast milk is the best thing you can give a newborn, but it’s not possible for everyone, so luckily there are other options available. On the other hand, if breastfeeding is available to you, there’s no reason you have to stop after the six-month mark.
The American Academy of Pediatrics says that “breastfeeding should be continued for at least the first year of life and beyond for as long as mutually desired by mother and child.” Often children will naturally wean once they feel ready. Extending breastfeeding gives them the opportunity to become independent at their own pace and gives them control over making decisions that will benefit them later in life.
You’ll likely notice other mothers weaning earlier than you’d like and may feel the need to follow their example. The important thing is to do what’s right for your family and approved by your doctor. From a health point of view, extended breastfeeding has no negative benefits, so don’t feel pressured to wean before you and your child are ready.
Extended breastfeeding during pregnancy
It’s totally possible to continue breastfeeding while pregnant. However, it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor before proceeding.
Think back to your previous pregnancy. If it was difficult, you may want to consider weaning as your body might not be strong enough to keep up with breastfeeding a toddler.
If you sailed through it, then you probably won’t have any issues, although your child might. Pregnancy hormones can change the taste, consistency, and supply of milk, and your toddler might not be willing to share with a new baby. Gently explain that this will be happening once their sibling arrives. Most are resistant to the idea at the beginning but eventually come around when the baby is born.
Extended breastfeeding challenges and how to deal with them
The main challenge of extended breastfeeding is the stigma around it. In the West, it’s typical to wean after 12 months. However, worldwide, women tend to breastfeed until kids are 2–4 years old, so you're in good company even if the women around you aren’t doing it.
People also seem to assume that extended breastfeeding discourages independence in kids. This is not the case at all and, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, there is “no evidence of psychologic or developmental harm from breastfeeding into the third year of life or longer.”
One issue that can arise is your toddler acting out if you do make the decision to wean them. They may throw tantrums for a while but, then again, what toddler doesn’t? Another issue is certain medications and lifestyle choices aren't recommended for breastfeeding women. However, most of these have alternatives that can allow you to continue — you just need to talk to your doctor about it.
When it comes to extended breastfeeding pros and cons, the positives vastly outweigh the negatives. It’s a fantastic way to give your kid the health benefits, emotional support and love they need as they continue into their childhood.