Extending Breastfeeding Beyond a Year

Thursday, December 16

drive-by nursing
Long before I was pregnant I was asked how long I would breastfeed. As a health professional, breastfeeding predates that positive pregnancy test - often by many years. In pharmacy school, you learn about the benefits of breastfeeding during the usual infant nutrition lecture. In the classroom, the immunologic and nutritional benefits are compared to modern formula offerings and the take-home message is that the Breast is Best but Formula is Fine (too).

At the time, my social group was comprised of other pharmacy students. These infant nutrition lectures made their way into our lives and became topics of conversation over drinks and late night phone calls. We'd wonder how long we'd nurse our babies, or if we would at all. One friend said she'd stop when her kids were old enough to ask for it. Another friend had no idea. And so it went, these musings on the future.

Now in our thirties, most of those friends did or are breastfeeding their babies. Most for at least a year. Most stopping or planning to stop when they go back to work. Recently, a few friends decided to continue until their babies self-wean (likely feeding until after age 2). And me?

I was breastfed for almost a year and my mom breastfed my twin brother and sister when I was four. I remember getting my mom glasses of water as she fed the twins. At the time, breastfeeding was the most normal thing in the world.

So, whenever breastfeeding questions roll around to me, I generally say something like, "I don't know, for a while." I mean, does it matter? It's just breastfeeding. If they push, I say for over a year. If they balk, I point to the World Health Organization which states that "exclusive breastfeeding is recommended up to 6 months of age, with continued breastfeeding along with appropriate complementary foods up to two years of age or beyond." Same goes for the Canadian Pediatric Society. In a policy statement on breastfeeding, the American Academy of Pediatrics also recommends that "breastfeeding be continued for at least the first year of life and beyond for as long as mutually desired for mother and child...there is no upper limit to the duration of breastfeeding."

And today? I have a 15 month old baby. I have no plans to stop breastfeeding her anytime soon...

In what is often called 'extended breastfeeding', toddler nursing is a very, very different beast than infant nursing. Toddlers are fast nursers, they move around a lot, they ask to nurse, they have teeth, they eat regular food, they pull your shirt down, they play with your face when they nurse. But, they are also prone to infections (daycare, anyone?) and benefit from the immunologic benefits of breastmilk - not to mention the comfort, connection and nutrition they continue to receive from the close connection provided while nursing.

Unfortunately, it is my experience that these benefits are kept quiet. Somehow, they are outweighed by social taboo. And it is because of this taboo that people feel it appropriate to question extended breastfeeding. They are concerned because the baby can eat baby food. The baby is learning to crawl. To walk and talk. To ask for milk. Essentially, the baby is becoming a little adult and no adult should be breastfed. It is uncomfortable to look at an aware child suckling on their mother's breast. It is uncommon and culturally it is sexualized.

This post isn't about the challenges or controversies of nursing a toddler - quite the opposite. It is about the normalcy of extended breastfeeding. The perfect naturalness of feeding a small child. It is about the fact that many moms feed beyond a year, unexceptionally. And that this behaviour, this choice, is the most simple of human acts. It is not sexual, restrictive or illogical. It is natural. It is normal. It is simple. And it is a perfectly acceptable choice for as long as is mutually beneficial for mother and child.

For those that are curious about extended breastfeeding, either because you know someone who is doing it, because you plan to do it yourself, because you are doing it or because you think it may be weird but you're not sure, it helps to hear from women who have been there. And also to hear about the research that has been done showing that nursed toddlers turn out just fine. For those that wish to learn more, there is a fantastic radio documentary called "Breastfeeding Beyond Infancy" by Dr. Vanessa Lowe, a clinical psychologist, radio host, musician and mother (via Mothering Magazine - another good source for extended breastfeeding).


Breastfeeding Beyond Infancy by Knitwise Media

For more information, check out the following sites:
For other mothers who are breastfeeding beyond a year, check out the following blogs:

Photo of fellow extended nurser Hobo Mama Lauren Wayne.


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28 thoughts and opinions:

Holly Marie DeMark said...

A lovely and thoughtful post, as usual. You're by far my favorite resource :)

Anjanette said...

Just found you and I'm excited to see what else you have to say!
-currently tandem-nursing little ones 9 and 34 months old.

Kristen @ Adventures in Mommyhood said...

What a great post. I breastfed my first for 25 1/2 months and am now nursing my son. I'm going to bookmark this post to send to others. Thanks so much.

Olivia said...

Great post. I'm still nursing my 20 month old with no plans to stop anytime soon. Whenever someone asks, I tell them I'm happy to still be nursing because it helps round out her nutrition and provide those antibodies.

Anonymous said...

I can remeber my Five year old ( now 10) got into trouble and me called in for a teacher confrence because he patted his kindergarten teachers boob when she leaned over him. I had to explain that he had just come off the breast and to him that was to same as patting a shoulder. poor boy he didn't even understand why she was upset with him.

Our Growing Family said...

I am nursing an almost 15 month old AND a 3 1/2 yr old with no plans to be finished anytime soon. I love giving my children such a wonderful gift!

Jennifer said...

Amen to all you wrote! And thank you- I'm continuing to nurse my 14 mo and have just recently become aware that some people are viewing me as a little "different" because of it. :)

Savanna said...

I've been nursing my now 17 month old from the moment she was born. It's such a natural thing, but its hard to stand up to others who think it's "freaky". Thanks for being a EN role model.

jen said...

Love the pic, I'm tandem feeding my 18 months old and my 32 month old and no plans to quit any time soon :)

halfwaycrunchy said...

Visiting from KellyMom on FB and this was a fantastic post!

I actually have been feeling the pressure recently with all the holiday events that I just posted on "extended" breastfeeding as well.

My daughter is going to be a year on Thursday and I've already been getting the mirage of questions on my choice. I agree that is is totally normal. Although, I don't really view it as "extended" breastfeeding but as "continued" breastfeeding.

When does it really become "extended"... just because our society tells us that it's now "extended"? Just because my child no longer qualifies as an infant makes it "extended" but really we're not extending anything we're just continuing to breastfed.

If we can remove the thought that after infanthood it becomes an extended event I think that it might be more welcomed.

I think that "extended" breastfeeding makes it seems like we're putting fourth huge effort to hang on to something that should have ended... where as "continued" breastfeeding makes it seem like we're just carrying out the normal task of breastfeeding.

Again, great post!

Kat said...

I prefer to call it "full term breastfeeding" instead of "extended." The word extended implies that you're doing something beyond the norm or past the expiration or something. May be a small distinction, but the words we choose to use have a real impact on our subconscious reactions and feelings.
I nursed my oldest until she self-weaned at 15 months. Now I realize that it was just a nursing strike and she would have come back to the breast if I had encouraged her more, but I was already pregnant with my oldest son and was ready to stop.

My second child was a more dedicated nurser. I was fully expecting to tandem nurse him along with baby number 3 but he self-weaned about a month before the baby was born which also happened to be one month before his own third birthday.

Before I had my first child, if anyone had told me that I'd someday be nursing a preschooler, I would have laughed in their face. But, when it happened, it was the most natural thing in the world.

So, except for a 6 month break in between my oldest two, I've been continuously nursing for 5 years and 2 months. It's as close as I come to having a hobby. ;-)

Women make babies, we have breasts that make milk in order to feed those babies....it's just the way it's supposed to be.

Anonymous said...

Nice post. I have nursed all six of my children well into childhood. In fact I have been continuously nursing for more than 12 years now. :) Nursed through 5 pregnancies, have tandem nursed all, and even triandem nursed several. Youngest is just 26mo and going strong....

Siobhan said...

I am currently nursing my 11 month and 33 month old sons. With my first, I said I'd be done when my first got teeth. That time came and went... and I said once he could ask for it, I'd be done. That also came and went. I figured we'd wean when I got pregnant with my second son. Again, that came and went. I was just talking ot my husband last night and said when he was 3 and that by the time my second was 14 months we would be done. And I swore it wouldn't be like the other times. But after reading this and listening to the attached audio, I realize I am doing it more for those around me. I get many comments and none are kind. This is about my children. And I will do what is right for them and not for everyone else. Thanks for posting and sharing. It really helped this mama of two. :)

rachel said...

I had plans to nurse my son until 3 or 4, but we are working on weaning now because nursing while pregnant is intolerable for me. The last time I nursed him was his second birthday, two days ago, though I can't say for sure that we won't do it again.

I am so glad to have given him the milk that is his birthright for two years!

tashsparkles said...

I'm also still nursing a 15mo and I'm sooo sick of the questions. Thanks for this post!

The Accidental Pharmacist said...

So cool to see so many nursing mamas (extended, continued or otherwise)! Thanks for stopping by.

Shereen said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you!
I will send this to my husband, who said yesterday he was worried I was "addicted to breastfeeding." Our son is not quite 18 months old.

Anonymous said...

My son is turning 4 in March and he has basically weaned himself by this point. I am glad I let him wean when he was ready because I truly believe nursing has helped make him the confident, gentle, caring, intelligent, affectionate little boy he has grown to be. And it is the most natural thing in the world, despite how others have tried to make me feel about it. So many women extend nurse but hide the fact that they do. It is much more common than many believe it to be.

battyjac said...

I have 4 children. I nursed the first 3 for 3 years each. The last is 5 months old now but I assume he will nurse until about 3 as well. People commented and questioned with my first, now they just know that's how I do it and there is no point in saying anything. I went from thinking 1 year was good and "not when they could ask for it" pretty quickly with my first. Now, it's just natural. As it really is.

A little story: When I was tandem nursing my barely 3yo and a newborn, my 3yo put her hand on the burner of the electric stove right after my husband removed the pan that had been cooking on it. She was in hysterics and unable to have it treated until I offered her the breast. She calmed down immediately and allowed us to do what we needed to with no more problems! Without nursing I don't know what we would have done.

Nursing is an amazing thing to have in your "toddler toolkit."

The Accidental Pharmacist said...

@Shereen - my husband said the same thing to me. I should also say that at around 9 mos I started losing a lot of weight and my hair started falling out (I'd already gone through the post-partum hair loss) so I did have to start eating more and taking a multivitamin. Turned out he was just worried about my health and everything is back to normal now.

@battyjac A good friend had the same thing happen when her baby burned his hand on a humidifier. She nursed him to sleep in the ambulance en route to the children's hospital. That helped to convince her to keep nursing. It's such a great help at those scary times.

Betsy B. Honest said...

Yeah. I had no idea how long I'd breastfeed. Now that my third has turned one, I sometimes get the question, "So, are you glad to be done breastfeeding?"

I'm never quite sure how to say, "I'm not at all done breastfeeding. I still nurse my two-year old as well as my one-year old."

But I care less and less what anyone besides my babies think about breastfeeding and so, I just say it.

One thing I like to keep in mind is how I've never ever met a woman who told me, in retrospect, that she wished she'd weaned earlier. But I sure have met a lot of women who, in retrospect, wish they hadn't cave to whatever outside pressure and nursed longer.

Sure do get some looks though.
My sister pretty much spit an h'ors d'ouvres back into her napkin the other night.... Oh well, don't ask if you don't want to know! The nerve!

36D said...

Must admit - I found myself blogging about the same thing a couple of weeks ago, when my daughter turned two. You put it all so well! Just normal.
I'm going to share your post with DBM if you don't mind!

Joyful_Momma said...

Good post!

I've breastfed 8 babies, all save one for at least a year. My current nursling is 6 mos. The shortest time I've breastfed was 2 weeks :( and the longest 29 mos. I only stopped with the 29 mo old because I was pg and my milk dried up.

I like the idea of calling it 'full term' breastfeeding instead of 'extended'. I'll be using that in the future.

Melissa Cline said...

Awesome post! We're just past 13 months and still loving our nursing relationship. I can't imagine paying more attention to the calendar rather than his needs. Reading "Mothering Your Nursing Toddler" has really helped me.

Anonymous said...

I'm surprised at how many referred to the advice "stop when the baby starts asking for it." For so many months I worried about what my little boy needed, and he couldn't tell me. I am so glad that my 13 mo can now show me what he wants, and to stop breastfeeding now seems like it would be cruel. I am finding that he wants to breastfeed more often than I realized. I don't want him to do the grabbing in public, however, because I know how most people would be disturbed. I know I should probably view it as their problem and not mine, but...
any advice on how others have handled that?

Christy said...

Wonderful post!

My daughter turned 2 a few days ago and we are very happy with our nursing relationship. In fact she walked up to me while I was reading this and said "I nurse Mommy". I replied "of course". I plan on following her and letting her wean in her own time.

Mommy T said...

My cousin passed along a link to your blog, and I loved your post. After my son turned 2, I did the "don't offer but don't refuse" thing, and we gradually tapered down. One day, ironically just before I was about to buckle down and wean because of an upcoming business trip, he turned to me said "I want a cup of 'fridge milk' with my story tonight. I'm big now!" And like that, we were all done (at 33 months). Wouldn't trade a minute of those extended nursing snuggles!

Heather said...

I can't believe how many of you are dealing with people judging your choice. My husband and I both agreed we would allow our daughter to nurse until she was done. Unfortunately, and despite everything we tried, my supply fully dried up at 7 months. But she still sticks her hand in my shirt and bra for comfort, and I allow her to do it. She is not hurting anything and just turned a year old. I have received many rude comments and I politely let them know its has nothing to do with them and it would be in their best interest to mind their own business. I warn them that the next time I have to respond to such rude comments it will not be as polite. I do not judge people for not even trying to breastfeed, so why judge me for choosing to breastfeed any future children we had.


A little story. When my daughter was 2wks old we had to go into a big name department store to get her a few things she needed. During that time she became hungry so I started nursing without a cover. I walked past so many people nursing her and everyone would comment on my beautiful sleeping baby. One women even commented and said "Well at least your not one of those disgusting women that thinks its okay to breastfeed in public. No one wants to see that." I smiled and said, "Well if that's how you feel you may want to look away because my daughter is currently eating at an all she can eat boobie buffet." My husband busted out laughing and I just stood there smiling at her while my daughter nursed away. She was speechless and walked away. Later we saw her pointing in our direction and talking to a sales person. The sales lady walked up, hugged me and told me she was very proud of me for NIP and not caring about what others say. She nursed all three of her kids and was very proud to admit she had nursed her youngest for 3 years. :)

Keep nursing mamas!

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