Have you continued to nurse a child after their first birthday? If so, you too are on an extended breastfeeding journey! The average age for weaning in the US is three months, while the worldwide average is a little over four years old. Where are you on that spectrum? Are you like my son and I and find yourselves towards the latter?
The American Academy of Pediatrics had the following to stay about extended breastfeeding: “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)
I never intended or planned this extended breastfeeding journey that my son and I are now on. It just happened very naturally and continues to make us both very happy. But, once I knew we wouldn’t be stopping at his first birthday, I realized there are so many reasons to continue the breastfeeding journey well into toddlerhood.
Here are three reasons to breastfeed past the first year
First: connection, connection, connection. There is nothing in this world like looking deep into your child’s eyes while he is nursing, and being able to lean down, take in his smell and kiss his sweet forehead. Or those early mornings when you are lying in bed, and he holds your hand in his as he nurses. You are mom, you are safe, you are comfort, you are home. The bond that breastfeeding your toddler provides is just indescribable. I feel as if this closeness helps me understand him better, empathize with him more, and really helps to lessen the number and severity of tantrums. He feels connected, heard, understood, safe, and loved. Nothing can soothe and comfort him like breastfeeding can.
Second, health, both his and mine. One of the most amazing things that I learned about breastfeeding is that your sick child’s saliva actually communicates with the mother’s body through the nipple to stimulate the growth of the antibodies to treat whatever illness they have. As our children get older, they are around more and more other children, and people in general, which can equal more and more germs. Whether they go to daycare or not, they are bound to get sick, unfortunately. As moms, we would love to take every illness on ourselves so they wouldn’t have to experience it, and although this isn’t possible, we can do the next best thing. How amazing that through breastfeeding, they are able to get exactly what their body needs to heal naturally and organically, without us having to do a single thing but nurse them! The immunological benefits of breastfeeding during two to three years of age actually increase and goes beyond that of the baby’s first year! And if they health benefits for him weren’t enough, breastfeeding, for me, lowers the risks of multiple types of cancers, RA, osteoporosis and cardiovascular disease.
Third, nursing past one year has been shown to contribute to the intellectual, mental and social development of the breastfed child as well. The American Academy of Family Physicians states, “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.” In addition, “If the child is younger than two years of age, the child is at increased risk of illness if weaned.” (AAFP 2008)
Now, I have to admit, that there are really only two reasons why we are on the extended breastfeeding path that we are. One, it makes us both happy. And two, I know it is good for him now and in the long run. I have no set date when our journey will end. I am more than thankful for the time we’ve had this far and all of the amazing benefits that come along with this journey. But, I know we will have reached the end of the road, when it no longer makes us happy, that will be our deciding factor. In the end, it will come down to him. It will be his choice when we stop. I can’t imagine what life will be like when I am no longer nursing him, though I do know it will be one of the hardest and saddest transitions of my life. For now, and for as long as I can, I will soak in every moment my son continues to nurse because it will forever be something that fills my heart with love and brings me closer to him than I ever thought possible…no matter the health or other benefits involved.
Are you on an extended breastfeeding journey? What is the driving force behind your decision to continue well past the standard age in our society? Do you feel supported in your decision? Comment below, I would love to hear about your journeys and motivations!
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