Breastfeeding might be a hot topic these days, but more than anything, it's a personal relationship between mother and child, and a personal choice when it comes to your body and family. Many women choose to nurse for a given amount of time, typically anywhere from birth to one year, but that's starting to change. It's becoming more and more common to nurse babies into toddlerhood, and as your little one grows older, you might be wondering if that's the right choice for you and your babe. Here's how breastfeeding your toddler affects their development so you can make a decision that works for you all.
According to International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) Leigh Anne O'Connor, breastfeeding into toddlerhood is biologically normal. "The advantages are numerous," she tells Romper, "but the major highlight is that the child’s immune system is still developing and nursing helps to promote a healthy immune system." Nursing also helps to develop oral muscles and the oral cavity, O'Connor continues. Breastfeeding your toddler can even lend itself to parenting relief, as you'll always have an easy tool to tame tantrums, ease cuts and bruises, feed them when they're sick, and get your child to sleep.
"Breastfed toddlers are typically confident, too," explains O'Connor. "Nursing a toddler builds strong attachment, and a solid attachment creates a secure person."
The World Health Organization (WHO) actually recommends "initiation of breastfeeding within the first hour after the birth; exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months; and continued breastfeeding for two years or more, together with safe, nutritionally adequate, age appropriate, responsive complementary feeding starting in the sixth month."
Unfortunately, the benefits of nursing into toddlerhood tend to get overshadowed here in the States. "The only negative to nursing a toddler is that our culture sometimes can present a negative attitude about nursing an older baby," O'Connor tells Romper. "Society sexualizes breasts," she says, and sexualizes the breastfeeding experience between older babies and mothers. Besides being obviously wrong, sexualizing a nursing relationship or the breasts of a nursing mother leads to exceptional societal pressure and confusion among mothers who are deciding when to wean, or whether to nurse at all.
Some women are eventually pressured into weaning by their family or community. "I have worked with women who weaned their first child out of pressure, but nursed the next child or children into toddlerhood," O'Connor mentions. When a woman is determined to nurse into toddlerhood, they most likely are not concerned with the falsified sexualization attached to nursing older babies. "They can separate the sexual and non-sexual aspects of their bodies," says O'Connor. The mom knows she's doing what she thinks is best for her and her child.
Nursing into toddlerhood can have additional health benefits for mothers as well. Those same feel-good hormones that are released into your body when you nurse your infant continue into toddlerhood. This could mean a bit more help being relaxed and happy as your baby turns into a toddler, which we all know every mother could use. And, according to Parenting, Dr. Sears noted that "extended breastfeeding reduces the risk of uterine, ovarian and breast cancer. Breastfeeding women also have a lower incidence of osteoporosis later in life."
As nursing toddlers becomes more common and accepted in Western cultures, especially here in America, some of the taboos related to longer nursing relationships are sure to wane. One of the biggest things to help that might be getting rid of the term "extended breastfeeding," notes O'Connor, because that suggests that nursing into toddlerhood is not normal.
A normal course of nursing can be a variety of lengths with a variety of factors and implementations. The bottom line is that we should support all mothers through their parenting and breastfeeding journeys, without adding in our judgement on how and when they should start or stop nursing.
As Dr. Sears noted in the Parenting article, "If it's working for you and your child, and your mothering instinct tells you it's right — it's right!"
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