The Benefits of Extended Breastfeeding
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Extended breastfeeding has been a topic of discussion for decades.
The recommendation for breastfeeding was once 12 months, with many mothers following this recommendation and intentionally weaning their babies right around their first birthdays.
However, the World Health Organization (WHO) and other notable U.S. organizations began recommending 2 years of breastfeeding in recent years for continued health benefits to both mom and baby.
Some of the World is Slow to Come Around
Extended breastfeeding can have great health benefits, but many parts of the world are still catching up-, harboring old-school ideals. Surprisingly, one mom reports on a Reddit thread that she’s frustrated with the critiquing she continues to get from a close friend who is a psychologist and works at a prominent early intervention center in Eastern Europe.
Plus, uninformed individuals and older parents or grandparents often ridicule women for nursing their toddlers.
Related read: Why is Breastfeeding in Public [Still] so Controversial?
The WHO’s Recommendation for Extended Breastfeeding
The World Health Organization (WHO), Center for Disease Control (CDC), and American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) all make the following recommendations:
- 6 months of exclusive breastfeeding, meaning only breast milk
- Infants should be fed human milk on demand (no schedules)
- Babies can be introduced to nutrient-dense infant diet of solid foods after 6 months while continuing to nurse up to two years- and beyond (promoting a natural weaning age for each individual baby)
As babies age, their mom’s breast milk changes to meet their nutritional needs- which is pretty cool!
The Benefits of Extended Breastfeeding
For babies, the benefits of continued breast milk include reduced risk of:
- Lower respiratory tract infections
- Ear infections
- Chronic disease
- Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS)
For moms, the benefits of continuing to give baby breast milk include protection against the development of:
- Postpartum depression
- Diabetes and other chronic diseases
- High blood pressure
- Ovarian cancer
- Breast cancer
Are There Any Disadvantages to Extended Breastfeeding?
As the mom’s story above illustrates, there are still experts in the early childhood development field that believe there are disadvantages to extended breastfeeding and breast milk. The top cited reasons include behavioral issues related to bed sharing and parental attachment.
The advantages far outweigh these disadvantages in the U.S. and most of the world. In fact, the AAP says there are no disadvantages to prolonged nursing, such as psychologic or developmental harm.
The Link to Behavioral Issues
The center cited by the Reddit user links prolonged breastfeeding to behavioral issues in children. However, there is no clear evidence to support this claim.
Plus, what is considered a “behavioral issue” is relative to each parent. Attachment parenting is a common practice that involves intentionally forming a strong bond between parent and baby. The goal is to have their needs met quickly, allowing them more time to learn about the world around them and build healthy relationships with adults.
Ironically, on the other hand, when children are not given enough attention or feel that their needs are being neglected, this can lead to behavioral issues such as aggression or defiance.
Nursing Women Facing Hardships
The woman’s story of being critiqued illustrates the actual issues surrounding extended breastfeeding, stigma, and lack of understanding. The struggles with continued breastfeeding past 12 months are not founded in research but due to lack of support. It is unfortunate that these women have to face such backlash for wanting to do what’s best for their babies.
Supporting Nursing Moms
Unfortunately, societal norms in places like the U.S., where there is little to no paid maternity leave- extended breastfeeding can feel impossible, even if a mom would prefer it.
We need more support for mothers who choose to breastfeed beyond twelve months. As a society, we should encourage women to continue as long as both mother and child enjoy the experience. We should applaud those who prioritize extended breastfeeding and provide resources for them, such as access to accurate information, support groups, lactation consultants, and more.
If more mothers had the option of continuing to breastfeed until their children were ready to wean, we could ensure that all mothers and children are given the opportunity to experience the benefits of breastfeeding.
The Community Agrees with Mom
The Reddit community was quick to support this frustrated mom.
One user says, “I have a degree in psychology, and my honest impression is that she’s spewing some Freudian BS…” Other community members with psychology degrees also agreed and had never heard of claims of behavioral issues.
Another wrote, “Any chance the information your friend is receiving is from the dairy industry at it’s source? It makes no sense to encourage weaning by 12 months only to start supplementing with cows milk.”
Finally, one Canadian writer made an excellent point, “Extended breastfeeding is encouraged and supported by medical professionals and [is why] we have 1 year+ maternity/parental leave.”
Read the full thread here.
Mom Knows Best
Overall, the mom’s frustrations were quite valid. She shouldn’t have felt judged for nursing her baby past 1 year of age. Plus, with benefits like better mental health and reduced risk of ovarian cancer and breast cancer, why wouldn’t she want to continue breastfeeding?
Ultimately, it should be up to a mother and her family to decide what is best for them regarding breastfeeding and supplementing breast milk. We must continue advocating for these families so that they can make informed decisions with access to the resources needed in order to facilitate a successful breastfeeding journey.
Finally, it’s worth noting that in the U.S., more systemic support needs to be implemented for extended breastfeeding to be plausible for many moms. The lack of better support illustrates why breastfeeding rates are lower in the U.S. than in other Western countries.