Breastfeeding has been around since prehistoric times. However, many barriers, including stigmatization, social norms, and a lack of education and knowledge, keep mothers from exploring and understanding the importance of breastfeeding.
The practice of extended breastfeeding is often met with disgust and negativity. In a culture that strongly favors bottle-feeding and downplays the nurturing functions of breasts, mothers find difficulties sharing their experiences breastfeeding.
Many mothers might be concerned about when they should stop breastfeeding their children. Because of how taboo it is to talk about breastfeeding, many parents might think there is only one way to nurse an infant. Is there such a thing as an age limit for breastfeeding?
How Old is Too Old to Breastfeed?
The American Academy of Pediatrics and World Health Organization recommend parents exclusively breastfeed their infants until 6 months. Beyond the 6 months mark, parents can continue breastfeeding their infants while introducing solid food. Mothers are encouraged to breastfeed their babies for at least 1 year to ensure better health and protection from diseases.
What is Extended Breastfeeding?
According to WebMD, extended breastfeeding is when nursing goes beyond 1 year. However, in some countries and cultures, 12 months is still “normal.” A survey done by the CDC shows that 36% of infants are still breastfeeding at 12 months, and 15% are still nursing by 18 months.
The AAP and WHO support breastfeeding for 2 years and beyond. The choice of continuing to breastfeed beyond 2 years is usually a mother and child’s decision. At this point, some mothers might choose to wean their child, while others continue until preschool.
Some mothers might also practice tandem nursing. While nursing two kids of different ages can be quite challenging, some moms choose to do it for an easy transition to a new family member.
Outside the US, other countries have different cultures surrounding breastfeeding, including extended breastfeeding. In countries such as Mongolia, the Philippines, and Bangladesh, extended breastfeeding is expected (and even celebrated!)
Meanwhile, in Islamic countries, breastfeeding is seen as a religious obligation. Mothers and wet nurses must breastfeed babies until they are 2 years old. In short, there is no one way to care for a baby.
What are the Benefits of Extended Breastfeeding?
Extended breastfeeding comes with its benefits, ranging from physical to psychological improvements.
Nutrition is crucial for growing children. As children grow older, their appetite and need for nutrients increase. Breast milk can provide what a child needs in tandem with solid food. Extended breastfeeding can also help secure food for impoverished families.
Besides nutrition, breast milk also contains antibodies that can fight off diseases and infections. Breast milk is a good source of short and long-term immunity, especially for children at risk of chronic and fatal diseases. Extended breastfeeding also lowers mothers’ risk of breast cancer, ovarian cancer, and other chronic diseases.
Both mother and child can also experience comfort and bonding while breastfeeding. Extended breastfeeding can bring both parent and kid closer to one another. Breastfeeding can help children feel relaxed and learn how to regulate their emotions.
Stigmatization with Extended Breastfeeding: How to Deal with Its Drawbacks?
The story of Denise Sumpter, who continued breastfeeding her daughter at 6 and a half years old, sparked debates among internet users on extended breastfeeding. While many commenters supported Sumpter, others are quick to call the practice “terrible,” “sick,” and “disgusting.”
Extended breastfeeding (and breastfeeding in general) is heavily stigmatized and considered taboo to talk about. So while mothers have no problem breastfeeding their children, many people are judgemental about what they consider normal or not.
Criticism of breastfeeding points out that only the breastfeeding parent benefits from the practice. Often, they may cite milestones, such as teething and eating solid food, as an absolute time to stop breastfeeding. However, extended breastfeeding mutually benefits the mother and child. Extended breastfeeding is built on trust and not force.
Another point many people make is that extended breastfeeding harms a child’s psychological well-being and development. Breastfeeding for too long causes children to be needy, dependent on their parents, and have difficulties when alone.
However, the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) disagrees, stating that extended breastfeeding does not harm the parent or the child. There is no evidence that extended breastfeeding can cause problems in a child’s behavior.
While it is not every day that you see a mother nursing a 6-year-old, that choice is nobody’s business. The absence of societal constraints can mean more exploration and understanding of breast milk and its nurturing capabilities for children.
What if it is Time to Wean?
Extended breastfeeding is a choice, and so is choosing the right time to wean. For some mothers, the weaning process starts once it is time to return to work. Others might have to wean their kids once they start losing interest in breast milk and are becoming fussier and easily distracted.
Weaning takes time. Both mother and child will need time to adjust not breastfeeding anymore, so take this step by step. Ensure your child can drink from a cup to replace the nutrients they are receiving from breastfeeding.
Gradually change your routine with your child as you wean them off breast milk. You can experience comfort in other ways with them, such as cuddling while they drink from a cup. You can also give them toys or pacifiers to calm them down without using breast milk.
While extended breastfeeding is not for every mother and child, it might be something you or a loved one decide to do. Weaning off is also a choice that you have control over. Do not let other people’s comments dictate how you raise your child.
Is extended breastfeeding practiced in other countries besides the US?
Many countries practice extended breastfeeding due to religious and cultural reasons. In other countries, extended breastfeeding is called full-term breastfeeding.
Does breast milk eventually dry out as the child age?
Mothers will continue to produce breast milk as long as there is demand. As a child ages, the composition of breast milk will alter, but it will remain to be available.
Do children become needy and dependent from excessive breastfeeding?
Children do not become overly dependent or needy because of extended breastfeeding. In fact, breastfeeding over an extended period has advantages for the baby and the mother.