Three years ago, I gave birth to my 3rd child. I was determined to exclusively breastfeed from day 1 but never imagined that I’d still be breastfeeding to this day.
Many people keep on asking why I still breastfeed a 3-year-old, wonder about my milk supply, and question the nutritional value of my milk for a growing child. I’ve learned to smile and discard any negative thoughts about our breastfeeding journey because I know that my child still finds comfort and satisfaction whenever I breastfeed her.
What is the recommended breastfeeding age?
The most frequent question parents raise when it comes to breastfeeding is the recommended breastfeeding age. The WHO recommendations highlight the need for exclusive breastfeeding from birth until the 6th month of your child’s life but also emphasize the benefits of breastfeeding up to 2 years and beyond when accompanied by adequate complementary foods.
Pediatricians recommend exclusive breastfeeding for 12 months, but many families keep going, considering the benefits that come with extended breastfeeding.
Extended breastfeeding pros and cons
While many are still doubtful about breastfeeding beyond infancy or extended breastfeeding, a lot of families opt for extended breastfeeding until both the mother and child are ready to wean on their own, without the fuss that comes when breastfeeding is stopped abruptly.
The pros of extended breastfeeding outweigh the cons, but it’s good to know both sides should you decide to continue breastfeeding your child past the average breastfeeding age.
What are the benefits of extended breastfeeding?
Here’s the good side of extended breastfeeding:
- It provides the same amount of nutrition—You may start to hear that the quality of your breast milk is not as good as it used to be. Although there is limited research on the composition of breast milk beyond 2 years, there is a study indicating that breast milk retains almost the same composition after 2 years. So, you can say that the “breast milk turns into water” myth is debunked. Your breastmilk changes with time but based on the needs of your child.
- It boosts the immune system—Undeniably, babies who breastfeed continuously after the recommended breastfeeding age enjoy improved immunity benefits. Extended breastfeeding can offer the same defense against ear infections, allergies, and upper respiratory infections.
- It is good for mom’s health, too—Breastfeeding, in general, lowers the risk of various diseases, such as type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, rheumatoid arthritis, cardiovascular diseases, and certain cancers, particularly breast and ovarian cancers. You can also have prolonged protection against obesity if you continue breastfeeding beyond the recommended breastfeeding age.
- It is good for brain development—Extended breastfeeding plays a vital role in your baby’s brain development. A 3-decade study in Brazil attests that extended breastfeeding can improve a child’s academic and professional success. The research also emphasized that babies who are breastfed for 12 months or longer had higher IQ scores compared to those who have been breastfed less.
- It is a good way to bond—While your child has become a very active explorer, extended breastfeeding is still a good form of bonding. You can never go wrong with early morning cuddles and nighttime connections, right? Plus, breastfeeding can be your little one’s source of comfort when everything seems too overwhelming. Did I mention that extended breastfeeding can also provide you with your quiet time?
What is the downside of extended breastfeeding?
There is no evidence that extended breastfeeding can do any harm to either the mother or the child if we are to look into it from a medical perspective. Still, there are some disadvantages associated with prolonged breastfeeding.
Here’s the not-so-good side of extended breastfeeding:
- Lack of freedom for the mom—Although the amount of time needed to breastfeed your child is less compared to feeding an infant, you may still find yourself being held up by your little one during feeding time.
- It can be painful—Imagine a child who has or almost has a complete set of milk teeth latching on to you. We have nights when my 3-year-old would intentionally or unintentionally bite while feeding. I tell you, it’s one of the most painful experiences I have had. Plus, some moms who breastfeed beyond the age of 12 months still experience soreness aside from the cuts caused by the biting.
- Infertility—Breastfeeding is an effective contraceptive for the first 6 months. It can stop you from ovulating even beyond those months because of the high level of prolactin when you breastfeed. High prolactin levels may cause infertility. If you are planning to get pregnant again, it’s best to discuss fertility and breastfeeding with your healthcare provider. He may be able to determine whether or not breastfeeding can affect your pregnancy plans.
- Public opinion—Breastfeeding, whether in private or public, draws negative comments despite the call to have it normalized because of its benefits for both the mother and the child. There is still judgment and unsolicited advice, especially from your own circle, and some people even think there should be a breastfeeding age limit because it is inappropriate to breastfeed an older child.
Extended breastfeeding and attachment parenting
Attachment parenting supports extended breastfeeding, which is nursing beyond 12 months of age. The principles behind extended breastfeeding and attachments parenting emphasize that breastfeeding should end in the most natural way or when both mother and child are ready. For instance, you can neither offer nor refuse feeding; instead, let weaning take a natural and gentle course for you and your child.
The link between extended breastfeeding and your child’s development
In general, breastfeeding has been associated with improved brain development in infants. Some parenting experts discourage extended breastfeeding because it can potentially curb the child’s self-soothing ability. However, the American Academy of Pediatrics discredits this claim, stating that extended breastfeeding is beneficial to a child’s overall development, including brain development.
A study shows that breastfeeding contributes to improved brain development in children, particularly with regard to cognitive abilities. It also reduces the risk of antisocial behavior and atypical social disorders such as ASD. However, further research is needed to confirm the link between extended breastfeeding and autism.
Breastfeeding is also beneficial for your child’s speech development. An advantage of breastfeeding is its contribution to a child’s proper oral and motor development, which inhibits speech-language disorders.
So, how long is too long to breastfeed?
The choice to prolong breastfeeding will be up to you and your child, especially if both of you don’t have any medical condition that will require you to wean earlier. There is no officially stated specific time or age when extended breastfeeding should end even though the set-up is not ideal for every family.
Extended breastfeeding should be a happy experience and should not involve force in any way. However, should a time come when breastfeeding is no longer an option for different reasons, weaning low and slow can do the trick. Putting a stop to breastfeeding is a major adjustment not only for your little one but also for you and the rest of the family.
“You’re still nursing?”
This is a very common question I get asked to this day, and honestly, I’ve gotten used it. One thing is certain, though: I won’t be affected by it as long as my little one reaches out to me for feeding. It can be a little tedious at times, but it’s all worth it.
The next time you hear this question or someone starts staring at you because of your choice on extended breastfeeding, shrug it off. Only you and your child can truly understand the beauty behind breastfeeding, and it is the connection between a mother and a child.
Sooner or later, your child will have to stop seeking comfort in feeding, so enjoy these moments while they last.