Doctors all over the world advise new mothers to breastfeed their babies, that too exclusively for the first six months of the infant’s life. Many moms happily do so too, given the immense benefits of breastfeeding for mother and child. But the big question is – for how long should you breastfeed your child?
Breastfeeding is a lovely bonding opportunity where the baby begins to identify the person who loves him more than anyone in the world. However, nursing a tiny little baby is not the same as having a jumpy, bouncy toddler sucking at your breast! This has given rise to a debatable topic, namely - extended breastfeeding.
What is Extended Breastfeeding?
Extended breastfeeding is generally considered to be the act of breastfeeding a child beyond the age of one year or a toddler. The Indian Academy of Pediatrics recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of a child’s life and complementary breast milk with solid foods up to and beyond two years of age. Many mothers wean their babies somewhere around the age of one year, but many others continue to feed even as their child goes to preschool, until the age of three or four.
How Long Should You Continue Extended Breastfeeding?
While extended breastfeeding is widely practised across the world, it is often frowned upon in India. Often times, a sexual connotation is attached to extended breastfeeding, discouraging mothers to indulge in it. In fact, such is the taboo around 'breasts' in general, that mothers sometimes do not feel comfortable nursing their babies even for the suggested 6 month period (which is when breastfeeding is most crucial).
But did you know that the global average age of weaning is 4 years? Yes! However, there is no one set answer for 'how long is too long to be breastfeeding your baby'. Worldwide, a lot of mothers feel comfortable nursing children upto their 4th birthday (some even beyond!). The best strategy to adopt here is to look for weaning-ready signs in your baby.
WATCH: Signs Your Baby is Ready to Wean
Key Takeaway: Breatfeeding should end when either the mother or the child feel the time is right. Babies typically show the following signs when they are ready to stop breastfeeding and explore adult food. Look out for these as cues to begin weaning your baby:
Baby pushes you away when you try to breastfeed him
Baby fails to latch on during breastfeeding
Baby starts to bite your nipples or play with them
Baby shows interest in other people eating around him, looking at their food
While no one argues with the benefits of breastfeeding during the first year, it is usually nursing a child after the age of two that garners the most criticism and controversy.
One view is that the health benefits of extended breastfeeding are just as applicable whatever the age of the child is, while others are of the view that nursing an older child can have psychological implications.
Benefits of Extended Breastfeeding
There are many benefits of extended breastfeeding. Here's the list of all advantages of prolonged breastfeeding for you and your baby.
Breast milk is the best way to build immunity in a child, and this applies to toddlers as well. Studies show that kids who stop breastfeeding before the age of one get sicker than those who nurse beyond that.
Breastfeeding helps comfort and reassure the child even if there are stressful situations at home. It increases the bonding between the mother and her child.
Breast milk has the ability to adapt to the child’s growing needs. Hence whatever the age of the child, the mother’s breast milk helps his growth.
A child’s maximum brain development occurs by the age of three, and breast milk helps boost this development with its specific nutritional profile.
Sick children tend to refuse most foods and fluids but agree to drink breast milk. This helps prevent dehydration which can otherwise be dangerous.
Extended breastfeeding offers a woman protection from breast cancer, ovarian cancer, cervical cancer etc.
Some women find that breastfeeding consumes calories, resulting in weight loss.
A child that weans on his own is more likely to eat healthier foods and be less picky about his meals.
Disadvantages of Extended Breastfeeding
There are some disadvantages of extended breastfeeding that can affect you and your baby. Take a look at these side effects.
Toddlers who can’t do without a breastfeed (especially a night feed) can have a hard time letting go or trying to sleep on their own.
Toddlers who breastfeed at night or without brushing their teeth before bed can end up with nursing caries, one of the most common disadvantages of extended breastfeeding, where the sugars in the milk are left on the teeth for bacteria to attack.
Breastfeeding a toddler can be very tiring, especially since they rarely sit still and have sharp teeth which can be very painful for the mother when they bite.
While babies only cry when they’re hungry, toddlers are more verbal and can openly pull at a mother’s clothes and demand to be breastfed in public, creating embarrassing situations for the mom.
Breastfeeding two children (a baby and a toddler) at the same time can be very exhausting for the mother and can put undue stress on her.
For most women, breastfeeding translates into feeling extra hungry and an extra requirement for calories. This can often lead to an unhealthy weight gain and even obesity.
Mothers who need to take medications for certain health conditions are unable to do so since it’ll affect their breastfeeding child.
A mother can feel like she still hasn’t got her body back, especially when she is exhausted at the end of a long day and has a little toddler making demands on her body.
Children who depend too much on breast milk might not get the required nutrition from solid food, which can result in deficiencies.
In the end, extended breastfeeding is really up to each individual mom and child. If you enjoy breastfeeding your toddler, continue as long as you like. If it’s too tiring physically and emotionally, begin to wean gently. Breastfeeding beyond a year is a very personal decision that a mom needs to make without any external pressure – from friends, family or the internet!
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