Extended Breastfeeding: Why Nursing Beyond Infancy Is Normal and Natural

A Breastfeeding toddler is very normal

While there have been great strides in normalizing breastfeeding for babies, there still remains quite a bit of drama surrounding the practice of a breastfeeding toddler.

This guest post originally published in 2015 is a good reminder for us all to learn and to share our knowledge with other mamas who may be getting pushback when feeding their toddlers with breastmilk. A relatively current article suggested that once people get past the ‘Ick Factor,’ they may be more open to the idea.

We’re hoping that we not only have mamas, and the public in general, more open to the idea, but that the ‘Ick Factor,’ is no longer even an issue.

Breastfeeding Beyond Infancy: Why it’s Normal and Natural

By Debbie Page, RN, IBCLC, CEIM, The Attached Family, reprinted with permission by Attachment Parenting International

In Western societies, it is commonplace to expect a child to breastfeed for six months to a year only. Many mothers set that as their goal unaware of what is normal and natural: children wean naturally. Natural weaning, when allowed, occurs sometime after the child is two and one-half years old, not before. In some societies, children will nurse for five to six years.

Where did the notion that breastfeeding is only for the first year of life come from? It came from modern, industrialized societies. The benefits for the child continue as long as the child receives breast milk. The benefits to the mother continue as long as she produces milk. Therefore, nursing well into the second or third year of life is of great value and critical to the child’s overall health.

What Are the Recommendations?

  • The World Health Organization: at least two years.
  • The American Academy of Pediatrics: one year and beyond.
  • Health Canada: two years and beyond.

Is Breast Milk Still Valuable after a Child’s First Birthday?

It certainly does not become less nutritional. Instead, the fat and energy content increases, and the composition of the milk continues changes from feeding to feeding and from day to day to meet the needs of the growing child. Breast milk continues to be a significant provider of nutrition. A total of 450 milliliters of milk daily provides these minimum daily requirements:

  • 29% energy
  • 36% calcium
  • 76% folate
  • 43% protein
  • 75% vitamin A
  • 94% vitamin B12
  • 60% vitamin C.

Breast milk is only 10% nutrition. The remaining 90% continues to contribute to the health and proper development of every system in the child. It continues to provide an essential supply of antibodies for illness protection. The immunological protection from breastfeeding actually increases during the second and third years. Breast milk is antibacterial, antiviral, anti-parasitic, and antifungal. It provides protection against:

  • Upper respiratory infections
  • Diarrhea
  • Pneumonia
  • Strep throat
  • E. coli
  • West Nile Virus
  • Influenza
  • Salmonella
  • Diabetes
  • Certain childhood cancers.

Breastfeeding toddlers may still get sick but usually with less frequency and severity. Breast milk also protects against allergies – it can delay the child’s exposure to certain food allergens, lessen the severity of the reaction to allergens, and decrease the incidence of asthma.

In the new  “Voices of Breastfeeding” 2014 double issue of Attached Family magazine, we take a look at the “other side” of breastfeeding advocacy—championing compassion for the mother who encounters challenges in breastfeeding and who may not be able to breastfeed at all. We also explore the cultural explosion of breastfeeding advocacy, including “Extended Breastfeeding Around the World.”

How Does Extended Breastfeeding Benefit the Mother?

The protection to women afforded by breastfeeding is all duration related: The longer you breastfeed, the greater the safeguard against various diseases. Breastfeeding reduces the risk of:

  • All female cancers, including breast, endometrial, ovarian, and uterine
  • Osteoporosis, because the bone density actually increases once the child is weaned
  • Insulin requirements in diabetic women
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Postpartum depression.

Losing weight is usually faster and more significant with breastfeeding women, and some women experience a suppression of ovulation. However, others do see the return of menses and therefore fertility.

How Often Do Toddlers Breastfeed?

Each child is different. Some toddlers will breastfeed first thing in the morning and before bed. Others will continue to nurse throughout the day. Some will nurse as often as a newborn. The frequency and length of nursing sessions typically decrease as children get older, especially once they reach 15 months old.

Keep in mind that toddlers will nurse to reconnect emotionally within the safety of their mother’s breasts. This is how they re-charge. They may play intensely and then run over for a few sips and just as quickly return to their toys.

Toddlers, like babies, may want to nurse more frequently when in a different environment or when the house is full of “other” people. Once everything settles back to normal, these increased nursings will likely disappear.

What about Encouraging My Child to be Independent?

Even though some experts will argue that extended breastfeeding will create clingy, dependent children, breastfeeding medicine specialist Dr. Jack Newman argues that the opposite is true: Children gain independence gradually as they are given free reins, not because they are pushed before they are ready. Children mature emotionally through the comfort and security of breastfeeding.

He calls this a “renewal of love.” It is a beautiful way of communicating unconditional love to your child. This message will last a lifetime and spill over into every relationship your child will have. Treating others with love and respect are hallmarks of an independent and emotionally mature adult.

What Breastfeeding Positions Do Toddlers Like?

Think gymnastics, and you may be able to think of all the imaginable positions for nursing. Toddlers can be quite entertaining when nursing. They nurse standing on tip-toes, on one foot, upside down, with both feet in the air, hands-free or both hands on the breast, wriggling, or twisting. As the circus director, you can decide if you enjoy these antics. If you don’t, set limits just as you must do for everything your toddler does or attempts. You can do this by:

  • Speaking firmly (not loudly, which could scare your child) to “be still.”
  • Tell your child what she may and may not do while breastfeeding.
  • Read to your child while she nurses.
  • Wear a nursing necklace that she can finger and play with.
  • Interrupt the feeding until your child is willing to stop clowning around.
  • Expect that this behavior will go away once the newly discovered acrobatic ability wears off.

What about Nursing a Toddler in Public?

This may be your greatest fear, as you worry about what others will think or even say. If your child is 18 months or older, nursing her before you leave may carry her over. If she wants to nurse before you return home, offer her a snack or a drink of water.

If you do nurse in public, hats off to you! By this time, you will be very quick with keeping your breast covered when your child lets go and most will not have a clue as to what is transpiring between the two of you.

And, if you do get a snide remark? One mother told me that when someone told her she should cover up (and she was nursing very discreetly), she kindly asked him to cover his head so he couldn’t see!

Will Nursing Beyond a Year Make Weaning More Difficult?

I hear people all the time exclaim that if you don’t wean before your child gets too old, meaning six or 12 months, that your child will never want to stop breastfeeding. This is just a myth and not based on any truth. Remember that children naturally breastfeed until at least two and one-half to three years. Some children need to breastfeed until they are four years old. Breastfeeding until your child weans himself allows the child to reach this milestone when developmentally and nutritionally ready.

You may decide to lead the weaning instead of letting your child. This is certainly fine. You can always do this at anytime you desire. It will not be harder except that your child may be old enough to show or tell you that he is not ready, unlike the six-month-old or even the 12-month-old. The closer your child is to self-weaning, the easier it will be.

When children are self-weaning, they gradually decrease the number of feedings over months, not weeks. They will sometimes not nurse for a day or more and then nurse several times in one day. They may be happy to spend the night with Grandma and then rush to breastfeed as soon as they see Mama.

How do you make your decision about how long you will breastfeed? As with most things in life, you have the freedom to make your own decision based on what you feel is best for you and your family. My suggestion is to not be in a hurry. Children grow quickly and outgrow breastfeeding in just a few years – only a fraction of the span of childhood. The incredible benefits of extending breastfeeding for you and your child far outweigh the pettiness of others’ opinions. Be strong, take courage, and breastfeed for years, not months.

Available now! The Attached Family magazine. This fantastic resource is free to API members–and membership is free. Get your copy today!

breastfeeding, 1937
Woman breastfeeding a child while listening to speakers during an outdoor STFU meeting, 1937

Extended breastfeeding has been shown to have positive cognitive effects for baby, as well as mental and physical benefits for mothers who nurse. Additionally, despite many who will throw out the ‘psychological detrimental effects’ that extended breastfeeding can have on children as an excuse to prevent it, there is no research that shows adverse effects. In fact, research only continues to show the magic of breast milk for babies and children, and it’s up to us to get past our own “Ick Factors.”

Yes, we mothers are sometimes the worst critics of parenting styles of others, and it’s evident even in our own natural-minded forums that extended breastfeeding sometimes throws up a hot drama ticket.

So it’s up to us to support and encourage, both a mother’s individual choice and the science that backs it up, and help normalize extended breastfeeding.


Photo: Iryna Inshyna/Shutterstock

12 thoughts on “Extended Breastfeeding: Why Nursing Beyond Infancy Is Normal and Natural”

  1. Very informative article! Now this gives me a clearer explanation regarding the benefits of breastfeeding beyond 6 months. I’ve been looking for this kind of post. Thank you so much for sharing it here.

  2. Great post. My son just turned two and we’re still nursing – I am the first in my family (and of most of my friends) to breastfeed and never imagined I’d go this far! I got a giggle from the photo and caption at the bottom – that they’re at the “STFU” meeting, because in Internet-speak STFU means something entirely different. 🙂 It’s almost like that mom is saying, “Go ahead, tell me I shouldn’t be nursing my child. I’ll tell YOU to STFU.”

  3. Um… what kind of meeting is the woman in the photo at? I’m really only familiar with the modern acronym “STFU”. Genuinely asking. :/

  4. My nursling turned 3 years old yesterday, and still breastfeeds like a newborn 🙂 we also still breastfeed in public, everywhere! It’s the most beautiful thing.

  5. Thanks for the article. I welcome all things which help “re-normalize” breast feeding! Both of my children nursed past 1 year. I only stopped nursing my son after my 1st trimester of pregnancy with my daughter as my milk supply dropped dramatically and it got painful – otherwise, he would likely still be nursing! (He is 4 now) My daughter is 2 and still nursing morning, evenings and at night (I am back to work FT so daytime nursing is only for weekends & holidays). I have no issue nursing in public and, quite frankly, do not care a single bit what other people may or may not think. LOL: I must look pretty confident (or threatening?) because I have never had anyone say anything at all to me. I got the occasional look but the look they got back was sufficient to have them move on 😉

  6. Ps: my daughter definitely nurses for comfort: if the environment around her is too stimulating, if she is not feeling well or feeling upset… It is much more about the emotional component of nursing than about nutrition. I also find it is a pretty interesting way for her to try and auto regulate her feelings in a positive way.

  7. My 4 year old still nurses in the morning and at night. I wonder when he will self wean until then I enjoy ever minute of special bonding time we have together.

  8. “Natural weaning, when allowed, occurs sometime after the child is two and one-half years old, not before.”

    A little overly definitive, don’t you think? I nursed both of my children to 1 1/2, when, much to my sadness, they both self-weaned. So was I wrong? Bad? The statement above is more than a little judgmental.

    I /loved/ breast feeding my kids; I see friends that are nursing and I still miss it. In short, I’m a proponent. But articles like this, My Way or the Highway, or You are a Bad Mother Unless You Do Exactly as I Say, drive me crazy.

    The women you drive away today due to this kind of attitude are the grandmothers of tomorrow who will tell their adult daughters with newborns, ‘I tried nursing. I couldn’t do it/didn’t like it, and was made to feel horrible. Don’t bother. Let’s talk about formula.’ Wouldn’t you rather they said, ‘I tried nursing, and was encouraged even though it was hard, and loved and still part of the mothering and breast feeding community even though I felt it was the best choice for me and our family to stop when you were still very young. It was a good experience even so. I encourage you to try nursing, too, and I’ll help you in any way I can.’

    Getting women to nurse longer. And getting society to accept it is not a sprint, but a marathon. Start acting like it. Sheesh.

  9. Maybe yours weaned at that age. And noone, especially the author, is judging you if they did. But they are probably exceptional in self weaning so young. Ive had 3 children and they were nowhere near weaning at 18mths. At 2 1/2 years they were still nursing strong, but less so. The figure ‘after 2 1/2’ rings true to me.

    Great article!

  10. In agreement with Sarah. The author is pretty definite on the self weaning after 2.5 yo. Now, I did have a child who didn’t wean until after that but I also had one who, much to my dismay, weaned at 14 months. I agree with nursing until weaned but every child is indeed different.

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