When I had my son, my goal was to breastfeed him until he was one year old. His birthday was suddenly upon us, and I could not imagine weaning my still “baby” from breastfeeding. Breastfeeding is such a magical experience and provides so many great benefits for your baby. So if you are not sure if you should breastfeed your baby past a year, do it! I’m going to discuss some of the benefits in this post so you will have all the education and empowerment to continue feeding your little one.
Through my research and education, I learned the World Health Organization recommends babies breastfeed until they are at least two years old. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends babies are at least one year old. It’s normal in most cultures to continue nursing at this age. The World Health Organization’s goal for 2025 is to increase the rate of exclusive breastfeeding in the first six months to at least 50%. Currently, in the United States, only 57.3%% of babies are exclusively breastfed at 12 months of age. Paid maternity leave could improve exclusive breastfeeding rates at 6 months and beyond.
A mother’s milk changes over time and becomes more calorically dense after the baby is one year old. Breast milk has the same great benefits it did when your baby was younger, too, such as protecting their immune system and providing great nutrition for their bodies.
Why You Should Breastfeed Your Baby Past a Year
The benefits of breastfeeding your baby past a year are endless! In addition to the amazing emotional connection to your baby, and the sweet grin you get, or the gymNURStics that happen…
- Your milk adapts to your baby’s needs, providing higher fat content in milk for your growing baby
- Supports toddler energy and growth
- Enhances your child’s role in regulating their own food intake
- Evidence of less strife at mealtimes
- Prolonged exposure to the mother’s immune system antibodies
- Protection against obesity, asthma, and diabetes
- Enhances your baby’s cognitive functions
- Longer-term enhancement of baby’s gut microbiome
- Greater exposure to milk flavors, enhancing baby’s palette
- Benefits for mama such as the delayed return of ovulation; reduced risk of cancers like ovarian, breast, uterine, endometrial; reduced risk of type 2 diabetes and heart disease; lose weight easier
The Cultural Norm
As cited by KellyMom and other industry professional organizations, breastfeeding your baby past a year is the cultural norm:
American Academy of Pediatrics
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that “Breastfeeding should be continued for at least the first year of life and beyond for as long as mutually desired by mother and child… Increased duration of breastfeeding confers significant health and developmental benefits for the child and the mother… There is no upper limit to the duration of breastfeeding and no evidence of psychologic or developmental harm from breastfeeding into the third year of life or longer.” (AAP 2012, AAP 2005)
American Academy of Family Physicians
The American Academy of Family Physicians recommends that breastfeeding continue throughout the first year of life and that “As recommended by the WHO, breastfeeding should ideally continue beyond infancy, but this is not the cultural norm in the United States and requires ongoing support and encouragement. It has been estimated that a natural weaning age for humans is between two and seven years. Family physicians should be knowledgeable regarding the ongoing benefits to the child of extended breastfeeding, including continued immune protection, better social adjustment, and having a sustainable food source in times of emergency. The longer women breastfeed, the greater the decrease in their risk of breast cancer.” They also note that “If the child is younger than two years of age, the child is at increased risk of illness if weaned.” (AAFP 2008)
Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine
The Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine affirms breastfeeding beyond infancy as the biological norm. “The average age at weaning ranges anywhere from six months to five years… Claims that breastfeeding beyond infancy is harmful to mother or infant have absolutely no medical or scientific basis,” says Arthur Eidelman, MD, president of the Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine. “Indeed, the more salient issue is the damage caused by modern practices of premature weaning.” The global organization of physicians further notes that “Human milk contains nutrients, antibodies, and immune-modulating substances that are not present in infant formula or cow’s milk. Longer breastfeeding duration is further associated with reduced maternal risks of breast cancer, ovarian cancer, diabetes, hypertension, obesity, and heart attack.” (ABM 2012)
I felt it was important to address nursing strikes and weaning in this post because both have an impact on you and your baby’s breastfeeding journey and duration. Nursing strikes can occur suddenly and can cause you to think your baby is self-weaning. Some babies may go on strike for up to a couple of days even. Don’t fret, mama! Your baby may be on strike for any of the following reasons:
- Ear infection
- Stuffy nose (hard to breathe while nursing)
- Prefers bottle
- Being left alone
If your baby is on a nursing strike, try to identify the problem and calm your baby. Take away any stressors for your baby. You may also want to reach out to a lactation professional during this time for extra guidance and support. Try laying your baby on you, skin-to-skin to reconnect. Look in your baby’s eyes, talk to him/her and reassure them it’s okay.
Don’t force breastfeeding on your baby- that could make it worse. Make sure you avoid a bottle or a pacifier during this time of resolution. Offer your breast to your baby while they are sleepy- just falling asleep or just waking up.
You can also try to surround your baby with other nursing mamas; they may see other babies nursing and want to breastfeed again too. Hang in there, mama. Just because your baby is going on a nursing strike, does not mean your breastfeeding journey is ending!
Once you decide to wean your baby, and it is a decision you are comfortable with as mama, there are a few ways you can do this. Keep in mind, it is totally normal to want to nurse your baby as long as possible. Try to tune out anyone around you that may look down upon you for nursing your baby at any age. Any mother that has breastfed their babies understands the bond that develops between you and your baby. If someone asks if you are going to wean them, just say “yes” since they are weaning themselves by eating complementary foods (more on that in the next paragraph)!
If you are trying to wean your baby gradually, and they are at least one year old (preferably two years old), there are a couple of ways you can stop breastfeeding. Baby-led weaning is safe for babies older than 12 months when they are consuming complementary foods. A mother can stop offering to nurse, and breastfeed on-request by the baby only. Over time, your baby may stop wanting to breastfeed. You can start offering baby solids at 6 months of age or older, but don’t forget: Food before one is just for fun! They still need breast milk as their primary food source. You can read more about baby-led feeding at Feeding Littles.
Also keep in mind, starting solids before the age of one is not a quick fix for sleeping through the night. Sleep is developed over time. In fact, feeding your baby rice cereal or oatmeal in a bottle is definitely not recommended for their little digestive systems and can cause a choking hazard.
As the mama, you can try to stop breastfeeding your baby that is at least one year old (but preferably two years or older). You can choose the least favorite nursing side or nursing session. Instead of offering to breastfeed, substitute it for something equally as good in the eyes of the child, like playing outside or a favorite teddy bear. Watch for the baby’s reactions, physical and emotional. Then, wait and repeat as you feel comfortable.
This type of weaning is less well known in North America but occurs in some cultures when the baby is 2-3 years old up to 7 years old. It is the same time for everyone in the culture and everyone knows and expects it to happen at that age or time. It is a ritual and something that is celebrated in the culture.
Support system when weaning
It’s important to have a support system in place when you stop breastfeeding your baby. Some mothers experience sadness at this time. Be sure to acknowledge your emotions and take care of yourself during this process. You may want to solicit the help of a lactation professional during this time, as it can have an effect on your emotions.
The reasons why you should breastfeed your baby past a year are aplenty! From offering antibodies to supplemental nutrition, breast milk is such a magical liquid gold! Let me know in the comments if you’ve breastfed your baby past a year and how old your baby is if you’re still breastfeeding.