Toddler Breastfeeding

Facts About Extended Breastfeeding

Mother breastfeeding her baby
Photo by Jeremy Madea/Moment?Getty Images

If you're looking for rules about when to stop breastfeeding, you won't find them here. In fact, I recommend avoiding anyone who does tell you there are hard-and-fast rules about when to wean a child. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends, "Breastfeeding should be continued for at least the first year of life and beyond for as long as mutually desired by mother and child." The emphasis there is mine.

If you're considering extending breastfeeding into the toddler years and possibly beyond, you need to weigh whether you are ready to stop and whether your child is as well.

Of course, like all emotional decisions in life, the answer to that question may not be completely obvious. When considering whether or not to wean your child and stop nursing keep in mind a few things:

  • Are You Ready? You may worry about losing that special bond between you and your baby, but there are other ways to build a very strong attachment. If you think this may be the time to wean your child, you can replace your nursing sessions with one-on-one time spent reading stories or playing and singing songs.

    When to stop nursing can be a physical decision as well as an emotional one. Depending on your own health or other physical demands on your body, you may need to stop breastfeeding in order to stay strong. The sleepless nights and physical tolls of motherhood and modern life may naturally leave you feeling a bit tired, but if you feel especially low on energy, talk to your doctor.

    Don't assume that just because you are making milk, you're eating well enough to sustain you and your baby. You may need to change your diet and increase your nutrients and total caloric intake in order to continue breastfeeding a child past infancy.

    Remember that all the good nutrition advice you heard when you began breastfeeding is still applicable one year or more down the line. That includes staying hydrated and limiting alcohol consumption.

  • Is Your Baby Ready? There are many stories of babies who wean themselves. One day -- at 3 months of age or 3 years of age -- a child just turns away from the breast and is done. More likely, though, it will be a process. And, in fact, if your child does abruptly refuse to nurse one day, she may be going through what's called "a nursing strike" rather than saying she's ready to be done with the whole thing. If this happens, especially if you don't feel the need to stop breastfeeding yet, you can look for solutions to the breastfeeding problems.

    Another common scenario is the slightly reluctant baby. If you feel ready to stop nursing, you should feel confident trying to wean your child off of breast milk. If you are concerned that this may not be the right time, but want to test it out, you can continue to pump breast milk for a few days during the trial run; this will keep your milk supply up in case you decide to resume nursing.

    During the trial, though, you would not put your child to your breast at all. Your child may root toward the breast (especially during those comfort times like before bed). You can redirect his interest with a bottle or cup of milk or use rocking, snuggling, and a comfort object to soothe him instead. After just a day or two, your child may seem to have more or less forgotten about your breasts. However, if after a few days he seems anxious and continues to repeatedly try to nurse, you may want to consider continuing to breastfeed at least on occasion for a while longer.

  • Are You Worried About What Others Think? Unfortunately, society puts a lot of pressure on breastfeeding moms. Some are pressured to stop breastfeeding. Others feel that they are failing as moms if they discontinue. Don't let the media, your friends, or even your own mother push you to make a decision. Likely, you'll hear arguments for and against extended breastfeeding. Before you let these sway you, be sure you know some of the essential truths:
    1. Breast milk continues to provide nutritional value and immune protection after the first year. So, it can be a beneficial part of a well-balanced diet that includes solids and other age-appropriate foods.
    2. Breastfeeding for any length of time provides your child with a health boost, so you've already given her a good head start whether you've nursed for a month or a year.
    3. Throughout history and in many cultures around the world today the norm has been to breastfeed beyond two years, so this is a very natural activity.
    4. Research does show that breast milk may contribute significantly to a child's overall well being after age one, but much of that research focuses on supporting children in the third world or cultures where moms don't have other healthy options as they do in the United States and other developed countries.
    5. Despite any stereotypes you may hear about, extended breastfeeding will notharm a child or make him more dependent on his mother or other caregivers.
    6. At the other end of the spectrum, choosing to wean your child before age one will not prevent you from forging strong emotional bonds with your child.
    The bottom line: No one else can tell you when is the right time to wean a child. You may need to feel out extended breastfeeding or weaning before discovering which option is right for you and your toddler at this moment, but trusting your body and your instincts is the best way to find the right path.

    Continue Reading