Updated: Jun 1
Have you had people tell you that your baby is ‘too old to be breastfeeding’ or that ‘your breast milk is no longer nutritious’? Do your friends and relatives (and complete strangers actually!) ask, ‘Are you still breastfeeding him?’ or ‘When are you going to stop breastfeeding?’ How long is too long to continue breastfeeding? Do the benefits suddenly stop after one year?
Breastfeeding beyond your baby’s first birthday is usually referred to as extended breastfeeding. But let’s just call it continued breastfeeding and acknowledge it as a child’s normal and natural breastfeeding term. Weaning begins when your baby starts reducing his daily number of feeds, towards his natural progression of ceasing breastfeeding. So are there any disadvantages of breastfeeding after 1 year? The reality is, babies wean when they’re ready to and for some, this is well after their first or second birthday.
And it’s okay. It’s normal.
Breastfeeding beyond 1 year
The World Health Organisation recommends exclusive breastfeeding for a baby’s first six months and then continuing breastfeeding for 2 years and beyond. The health benefits of breastfeeding in the first 12 months are very well documented. But what happens to the quality of breast milk after your little one’s first birthday? Do the nutritional content and immune factors have use-by dates? Absolutely not! No matter how long you and your little one continue to breastfeed the nutritional, immunological and developmental benefits remain.
The idea that continued breastfeeding causes a lack of self-confidence in children is just not true. In fact, the opposite is true. Research shows the secure bond with mum instils confidence, independence and a greater ability to make close friendships when babies are free to move into childhood at their own pace. Continued breastfeeding helps babies cope with the many changes that occur throughout childhood and helps them learn to calm their fears and frustrations later in life. The natural weaning time is different for each child but weaning from breastfeeding before they are developmentally ready may be the cause of them being clingy and “too attached”.
Nutritional value of breast milk
For as long as your little one continues to breastfeed your milk will continue to provide significant nutrition and immunity factors. What’s more, is that the composition of your breast milk continually changes to meet his developing needs. In fact in a baby’s second year, just 448ml a day of breastmilk alone will provide:
29% of energy requirements
43% of protein requirements
36% of calcium requirements
75% of vitamin A requirements
76% of folate requirements
94% of vitamin B12 requirements
60% of vitamin C requirements
Source: Dewey KG 2001, Nutrition, growth and complementary feeding of the breastfed infant. Pediatr Clin Nth Amer 48:87-104.
Of course, your little one will be gaining much of his nutrition from solid foods by the time he’s one but breastmilk continues to be a valuable part of his diet.
Breast milk benefits
A child’s immune system is still not fully developed by one year of age. When your little one is ill and not interested in eating or drinking, giving your breast provides soothing comfort and your breast milk provides much-needed hydration and viral immunity. In fact, the concentration of immune factors increases in the second year and although your child will still experience illness it will be less frequent and of a shorter duration than in their peers.
Yes! It’s true! There are many health benefits you can enjoy with continued breastfeeding:
The longer you breastfeed the greater the protection against breast, ovarian, uterine and endometrial cancers and osteoporosis later in life. And the benefits are cumulative with the longer you breastfeed.
Post-baby weight loss (I know - this works better for some than others!)
Diabetic women maintain more stable blood glucose levels and need less insulin.
Delay in the return of your period. Exclusive breastfeeding suppresses ovulation but as your baby gets older and his feeding becomes less frequent your hormone levels will adjust and ovulation will return. It’s therefore not necessary to wean when you’re ready to plan for another child.
Breastfeeding can have a calming effect on you at the end of a busy day.
Consider tandem feeding your toddler and your newborn. Your milk will revert back to colostrum just prior to your new baby’s birth and your toddler can help you to avoid day 3 engorgement when your milk comes in again!
So the next time someone questions you, offer some of these amazing facts. Try not to let the opinions and comments of others sway you. Breastfeeding beyond the baby’s first birthday is normal. Be confident in your decision to continue to breastfeed and enjoy the benefits for as long as you and your baby choose to.
This article was written by Parents You've Got This Lactation Expert Rowena Gray, a mother to 3 young daughters, nurse, midwife and International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) and has been both a consumer and giver of copious amounts of breastfeeding advice! She is the author of ‘Born to Breastfeed - the first six weeks and beyond’ available in bookstores and online. Rowena has a private Lactation Consultant practice in Melbourne. www.rowenagray.com.au
Rowena presents at Parents You've Got This Baby Basics Masterclass and has an expert video as part of the Parents You've Got This Experts On Demand Newborn Series.