Extended Breastfeeding

My baby is almost a year old. Soon she will cross the invisible dividing line between “infant” and “toddler.”
I sat nursing her, stroking her still-soft head yesterday and wondered how I could ever have imagined that a baby would be ready to stop breast-feeding by a year.

When I was pregnant with my first child, I knew I would breast feed. Why not? My mom had breastfed most of her children, so I grew up thinking it was normal. But my mom also believed, along with a great deal of the United States, that “they don’t need to nurse once they can eat” and “if they can ask for it, they need to wean.” So I assumed that is how breast feeding was done.
But when my first child grew closer and closer to a year old, I realized it was hard to tell when she had begun asking to nurse. Was it when at 5 months old she could pluck at my shirt? Or was it at 3 months old, when she cried to let me know that other comfort measures weren’t working and she wanted to nurse? Or did it begin at 9 months old when she could try to lift my shirt to find her beloved nursies? So, I just kept nursing her.

There is plenty of evidence out there that extended breastfeeding is beneficial to both mother and toddler. The World Health Organization has recommended breastfeeding for “up to two years of age or beyond.” UNICEF states to “continue to breastfeed for two years or more with age appropriate, responsive complementary feeding.” The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends “”that breastfeeding continue for at least 12 months, and thereafter for as long as mutually desired.”
Some studies have even shown that children breastfed past infancy have fewer incidences of diabetes; have more normal jaw formation, eliminating perhaps a need for braces; are less prone to viral illnesses; and that these breastfed children have a healthy self-image and are socially well-adjusted. Other studies indicate a benefit to moms too, including a lower risk of breast cancer.

I knew all that. But nursing an infant who cannot eat or even hold her head up is almost demanded. Nursing a toddler who can walk over to her mom holding a book and ask to be read to is another thing all together. So this article will explore a few emotional benefits and reasons for breastfeeding a toddler.

The first thing to consider about extended breastfeeding is that you didn’t pick up a walking, talking toddler and begin nursing her. You started out nursing a helpless baby. Day by day your baby grew and you nursed her. She grew some more, and you still nursed her. By now, it was part of your day (and night). By now, it was as natural and sweet to breastfeed her as it was to pick her up and cuddle her even after she could walk and ask to watch Barney.

For those of you nursing an infant and reading this article, breastfeeding a toddler is not the attention-demanding, exhausting, constant job that nursing a baby is. Parenting a toddler is attention-demanding, exhausting and constant, though, and extended breastfeeding is a powerful tool to help both of you through that time.

Few things are easier and sweeter than nursing your toddler down for his or her nap. By now, the two of you have an established routine of nursing and the toddler is primed to fall asleep during breastfeeding. That fact alone is enough to recommend extended breastfeeding.

Tantrums? My baby, the one about to become a toddler, already throws her head back and screams when she can’t reach something or is frustrated. In a few months, she will continue to express her displeasure at the world and my directions. Extended breastfeeding eases the gap between the toddler’s expectation and the reality of his world. Nursing allows him to regroup, feel connected and to recharge his coping batteries.

The inevitable bumps, bruises and hurt feelings of a toddler learning to explore her world are easily soothed and comforted by nursing. I think in this way, extended breastfeeding allows us to foster empathy and help in our young children. Not to mention, it calms the atmosphere of the home like nothing else.

I know there are still people out there who are thinking extended breastfeeding is gross, wrong, downright peculiar and unnecessary. And that’s okay. I thought that, too, the first time I saw a toddler walk over to his mom and nurse.
Breastfeeding your toddler does not mean, however, that you must cater to every demand of these little would-be tyrants. It is appropriate for both the child and you to begin setting some limits on lots of things, including extended nursing. Many mothers choose to begin nursing at only nap and bedtimes for instance. Or some mothers may limit breastfeeding session’s length during this second year. Most mothers will ask their child to wait to nurse until after shopping, for instance, or until they have finished a household chore.

My oldest daughter is four. I know how quickly the time goes now. By the way, she hasn’t nursed at all since she was 2 Ã?½. Gradually, and without any prompting on my part, we began nursing only at nap and nighttime. The nap session was the last to go. Most toddlers, like mine, would prefer not to nap, and breastfeeding her helped us to avoid a power struggle over napping. She doesn’t even remember breastfeeding anymore. But I do, and will always treasure the memories.
My baby is almost one. But that doesn’t mean I quit meeting her needs. And her needs right now include extended breastfeeding.

I hope many of you out there who are considering extended breastfeeding will also know the joy and comfort to be found for both child and mom in nursing your toddler.

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