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The Benefits of Extended Breastfeeding

There are very few things about parenting on which a majority of people can agree. Breastfeeding certainly falls into this category. Evidence shows that breastfed babies have advantages ranging from better health to fewer allergies and even higher IQs. In fact, most women do nurse their babies, even if only for the first six weeks of life. Pediatricians say that any nursing is advantageous to babies, but that for the full nutritional benefit, nursing for a year is optimal. Some women do stop nursing when their baby is a year old, as toddlers tend to get most of their nutrition and calories from solid food by this point. There is a significant minority, however, who continue nursing their toddlers until they are two, three, four, and even beyond. Called extended breastfeeding, the practice of nursing older toddlers and children is controversial at best. Women who engage in extended breastfeeding can be assured that doing so in public will definitely raise eyebrows, and may even invite unwanted comments and opinions. So why would any woman want to nurse a baby beyond the age of one?

Advocates of extended breastfeeding argue that even though children over one no longer require the nutrition provided by breast milk, they do continue to accrue additional nutritional benefits, including receiving vitamins and enzymes. In fact, children who are nursed past the age of one tend to be sick less often than their non-nursed peers. Further, nursing past the age of one continues to allow mother and child to bond in a special and unique way. Nursing acts as a source of comfort and familiarity to a toddler confronted by a very big and unfamiliar world. Finally, those who advocate extended breastfeeding point out that the practice is very common in other countries, and that it is only in the overly-independent atmosphere of toddler America that it is viewed with suspicion.

So are there any reasons not to breastfeed your child past the age of one? Ultimately, the decision is best made on an individual basis. Those who argue against extended breastfeeding cite concerns that a child will not be able to form normal attachments to other people because of an unnaturally close relationship with his mother. Also, if one views breastfeeding primarily as a means of providing nutrition to her child, the practice simply becomes redundant past the age of one. Finally, women who want to be able to predict their fertility, either to become pregnant or to avoid pregnancy, have a much more difficult time if they are nursing.

Essentially, there is no harm to extended breastfeeding. Many moms indicate that they will nurse until their child self-weans. For many mothers, this process occurs naturally around the age of 12 months, especially if nursing is used only for feeding purposes. Mothers who offer nursing for comfort may find that their children do not wean as early as others. When deciding whether extended breastfeeding is right for your family, consider the opinions of your child’s other parent, your family planning goals, and the wellbeing of your child. It would be hard to go wrong if all of these factors are taken into account.

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Content copyright © 2013 by Laura Delgado, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.
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