Should mothers do extended breastfeeding?
The term 'extended breastfeeding' most likely will be interpreted differently depending on which part of the world you're from. In most Western countries, it usually means breastfeeding after the age of 12 months. However, in many cultures, breastfeeding a baby past 12 months isn't considered 'extended' at all and has widely been understood to benefit children in several ways.
The most apparent benefit of extended breastfeeding involves nutrition. Though some studies argue that breast milk loses nutritional value after a year, this is now considered a myth. Regardless of how long a mother chooses to breastfeed, her baby will continue to benefit from the nutrients in breastmilk, including protein, fat, calcium, and iron. The composition of breast milk will also change based on the baby's specific needs, meaning they will continue to receive optimal nutrition for as long as they are breastfed.
Extended breastfeeding has also been found to offer long-term health benefits. Studies show that children are protected from developing diabetes, certain types of cancers, high blood pressure, and heart disease. Many scientists have also argued that a person's immunity will improve the longer they were breastfed as a baby.
Breastfeeding beyond 12 months has also been associated with improved mother-infant bonding. Touch is crucial for child development, and breastfeeding can be an important way to maintain closeness between a mother and her baby. One study also found that women who breastfeed their children longer tend to exhibit more maternal sensitivity, meaning they grow to be more responsive to their child's cues.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) explicitly states that the decision to breastfeed for a year or longer should be “mutually desired by mother and infant.”
Unfortunately, moms tend to be shamed for not extending breastfeeding or for shifting to formula by the time their toddlers turn one. Some are even guilted into breastfeeding despite experiencing medical complications such as pain and milk supply issues.
All of this needs to stop, and here’s why.
As wonderful as breastfeeding may be, it requires a lot of energy and attention, which can be overwhelming for women--such as the 77.5% of employed mothers working full-time.
Lactating mothers also need to be careful while taking medications or consuming some foods, as both may turn up in breastmilk.
Breastfeeding is also mentally draining. For some mothers, the stress of nursing may take the joy out of parenthood. Especially while nursing toddlers, as there’s a social stigma associated with this act.
Partners of breastfeeding mothers are also affected. Intimacy with a loved one may feel more like a chore due to hormone fluctuations and accidental leakage. And without intimacy, a relationship may not remain healthy.
Children, too, may not benefit from this, be it the breastfed toddler or older siblings. Some nursing toddlers may become too clingy and refuse to take part in normal activities. As for older children, they may experience jealousy and feel neglected, which will only get worse the longer the mother breastfeeds.
So, before succumbing to the pressure for extended breastfeeding, mothers need to put themselves first and keep in mind the remaining members of their family.
- A 2013 study revealed that about 60% of mothers stop breastfeeding before they had intended to due to various reasons such as lactation difficulties, infant nutrition and weight, illness, and difficulty pumping.
- A report by the CDC in 2019 stated that about 35% of babies are still breastfed at 12 months of age.
- Norway ranks #1 in breastfeeding rate for babies in a developed country, with “99 percent...at least partially breastfed, 80 percent of them to six months or beyond.”
- The American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) reports that anthropological data offers “a wide range of normal self-weaning ages, from two-and-a-half to seven years of age.”