When you first start nursing your baby, you are probably just going with the flow. Going through the motions of feeding your baby throughout the day and randomly throughout the night. However, sooner or later, you must begin to plan on how and when to wean the little one—that is, stop breastfeeding them. Usually, babies are fed only breast milk (or formula) up to the age of 6 months, and then breast milk alongside solids until they are about a year old.
However, there is also another option: extended breastfeeding, where you continue breastfeeding your little one beyond the age of one until both of you mutually agree to stop. You may have already heard a little about extended breastfeeding and it’s pros and cons.
This article will help you learn about the various benefits of extended breastfeeding and why it might be the right choice for you and your baby. After all, each baby is different, as is each mother. Although it may be unconventional, extended breastfeeding has been known to be rewarding for many.
7 Proven Benefits Of Extended Breastfeeding
If you are unsure about extended breastfeeding, you are not the only one. There is a lot of societal stigma around the concept, and it may not be acceptable at first glance. However, it cannot be denied that there are many extended breastfeeding health benefits for both mother and child. So here are a few of the most significant benefits of breastfeeding your baby beyond the usual time period.
1. It provides nutrients to the baby and helps development
There is a long-standing misconception that after a certain point, your milk begins to lose its nutritional value, but this could not be further from the truth. In fact, it is the opposite that is true, and this is one of the main extended breastfeeding benefits.
Not only does the breast milk not lose its nutrients, but it could actually change (and gain more nutrients) to better suit your child as they grow and develop. Various studies show that after one year of nursing, the milk will contain higher amounts of fat and energy, and after two years of nursing, the milk will contain higher amounts of proteins.
When breastfeeding for an extended period of time, mom’s milk may provide a sizable portion of an infant’s daily calorie intake in the form of fat1. This is significant because, as your little one enters toddlerhood and later, early childhood, they will need much higher amounts of energy than when they were infants. While they can rely on other solid foods for vitamins and minerals, breast milk is undoubtedly a valuable source as well.
You may have also heard of the maxim that “breastfed babies are more intelligent”. There is undoubtedly some amount of truth to this statement, as breastfed children have shown higher IQ scores at a young age, as per this source although the effect on social aspects is not yet conclusive.
This is not only due to the nutrients. The very act of breastfeeding, along with all that comes with it such as different positions, helps the baby’s development. Therefore, it makes sense that prolonged breastfeeding can improve this, which is one of the health benefits of extended nursing.
2. It is beneficial to the parent’s health
Do not be mistaken for thinking that the prolonged breastfeeding advantages are only for babies! There are also significant benefits to extended breastfeeding for mothers.
One of the main benefits of extended breastfeeding is that it helps to protect the breastfeeding parent from numerous dangerous health conditions. Breastfeeding mothers tend to be at lower risk for common issues like high blood pressure. Additionally, they are less likely to develop breast cancer and ovarian cancer. They are also more protected from type 2 diabetes2.
The longer you breastfeed, the more you can reap these extended breastfeeding advantages.
Related Reading: 12 Foods To Increase Breastmilk Supply In New Moms
3. It protects the baby from various health problems
There are, of course, many benefits to extended breastfeeding for babies. Among the most important of those is the fact that numerous common and dangerous illnesses and conditions can be prevented with the help of extended breastfeeding.
In early infancy, breast milk is the main source of protection against infection for your little one. It is rich in antibodies and helps fortify your baby’s immune system. As it is also a probiotic, breast milk is good for your baby’s digestion and maintaining the healthy bacteria in their body.
Additionally, the vaccines you get when you are breastfeeding, and even from the time of pregnancy, can spread its benefits to the baby through breast milk, such as COVID-19 vaccine, flu vaccine, Tdap vaccine, etc3.
As your baby grows and explores, the chances of them contracting such infections increase greatly. As they grow into toddlers and even later, breast milk becomes a crucial source of protection for the little ones from these pathogens. This becomes one of the most important extended breastfeeding benefits.
In addition to all this, according to the CDC, prolonged breastfeeding helps prevent many conditions like obesity, asthma, diabetes (Type 1), and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). Common problems like stomach viruses and ear infections are also prevented.
4. It is the perfect bonding activity for parent and child
As the baby grows, it becomes more and more difficult for the parent and child to connect, as they did in the days of early infancy. The baby is no longer a pliant and cuddly little bundle. They are curious, energetic, and mobile.
It will not be easy to spend some quiet time and snuggle with them, but those moments of mutual bonding are still very important for the baby to have a happy and secure childhood.
This is where breastfeeding comes in. Breastfeeding enhances mother-child bonding4. It is one of the best and most natural ways for the mother to bond with the baby. In fact, it is one of the main pillars of the philosophy of attachment parenting.
Thus, one of the benefits of extended breastfeeding is that it helps you stay connected with your baby, even as they grow more independent and active.
Related Reading: 10 Foods That Make Breast Milk Taste Good (Indian)
5. It is a good way to soothe the child
When babies grow into toddlers and then into young children, you see that the little cuts, bruises, and tumbles increase in number and frequency. They are learning to navigate the world around them, and that may take time to get used to. It is an important part of development.
However, it can sometimes be distressing and painful for the baby, and you may find yourself struggling to calm them down, like after a vaccination.
Breastfeeding is a good way to do that. They cannot cry if they are drinking, and additionally, the act is comforting to them. It has been found that it can help relieve pain. Breastfeeding is a good way to soothe a distressed and crying child5.
6. It is also a good way for the parent to relax
It is not just the baby that needs soothing as time goes on! Raising a baby is hard work, and having to do that along with household chores and/or office work is incredibly stressful. Everyone needs a break now and then. It would be good for the mother to have some time to simply sit quietly and calmly and bond with her baby6.
It has even been found that breastfeeding leads to the release of the hormone oxytocin, which has stress-relieving properties. Breastfeeding can also help decrease blood pressure and cortisol7.
It can even be said that regular breastfeeding sessions can help decrease not only stress but also anxiety and depression, as these conditions are lower in those who breastfeed than those who use formula.
7. It is very convenient
Of course, extended breastfeeding is not something that should be done haphazardly. There should be some planning behind it, and it should be done in accordance with the child’s needs.
However, when it comes to dealing with their hunger, especially during long trips and times of travel, breastfeeding is more convenient than remembering to pack various snacks and soothers.
This is one of the more practical benefits of extended breastfeeding. Although it cannot be a substitute for actual food, it can certainly help if you decide to go on a road trip.
Related Reading: 9 Biggest Challenges Of Breastfeeding No One Prepares You For
At What Age Is Breastfeeding No Longer Beneficial?
There is no fixed age at which you must wean your baby. It is a personal choice for you and your baby. It is recommended that you breastfeed exclusively until the baby is 6 months old, and then, alongside solid foods until the baby is one year old. After that, it is your prerogative.
Since the breast milk adapts to the needs of the baby, and the child is also fed solid foods, there is no real reason to stop quickly. You can continue the activity for as long as both of you are willing and able, even as it eventually starts being more of a bonding activity than a necessity.
How Long Can You Extend Breastfeeding?
There is no hard and fast rule about when you should stop breastfeeding your baby. It is completely up to the comfort of the mother and the child. It is up to you to make an informed decision about when your baby should be weaned.
Undoubtedly, there may be people around you who disapprove of the notion of a 3-year-old still breastfeeding or even a child older than that. But it cannot be denied that there are benefits to it8.
Many studies claim that the natural age for humans to be weaned can be anywhere between the ages of 2 and 4. Most children naturally get weaned before the age of 4. You can wait until the child decides to stop, or you can employ some slow and gentle weaning strategy in the meantime.
By now, you must have realized that there are an abundance of benefits of extended breastfeeding. There are short-term benefits, like soothing the crying child, or long-term breastfeeding benefits, such as preventing life-changing illnesses. So do not feel pressured to wean your child as quickly as possible.
For as long as both of you are comfortable with it, enjoy sharing this natural and beautiful bonding activity.