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Here's The Deal With That Whole "Breastfeeding Age Limit" Thing

If you've chosen to breastfeed, you likely know all about the health benefits it provides both you and your child. Besides unparalleled nutritional value, breastfeeding can help new moms recover from the trauma associated with childbirth. Bur breastfeeding is, and always should be, a choice. Deciding to nurse, and for how long, is entirely up to the lactating woman. So if you're wondering if there a breastfeeding age limit, know that it's a loaded question and the answer depends entirely on who you ask.

According to the American Pregnancy Association (APA), mothers should exclusively breastfeed for at least the first six months of their babies' lives, followed by continued breastfeeding while introducing age-appropriate foods until a child is at least 12 months of age. After that, the World Health Organization (WHO) suggests babies "should be given nutritious complementary foods and continue breastfeeding up to the age of two years or beyond." The APA recommends breastfeeding continues "as long as mutually desired by mother and baby." In other words, the only age limit is the one you decide for yourself, your baby, and in keeping with your own unique situation.

According to a 1996 study published in Clinical Pediatrics, out of 179 moms, 83 percent still breastfed their babies at 1 year of age, 66 percent at 2 years, and 44 percent at 3 years of age (with the average cutoff being before 3). The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also cites that 60 percent of mothers don't breastfeed as long as they plan to, whether it's due to latch issues, lactation impairment, baby's growth or weight issues, lack of support, or cultural views that prevent longer breastfeeding. So while a mother should always be given the ability to choose whether or not she wants to nurse, and for how long, sometimes that choice is out of her hands. Again, an "age limit" become superfluous, because every woman, and every breastfeeding situation, is unique.

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Not long ago, TIME featured a cover image of a 26-year-old mother breastfeeding her then 4-year-old son with the caption "Are you Mom enough?" The feature sparked outrage and national debate regarding so-called "aged-out" children and breastfeeding, under the umbrella of attachment parenting — a style of parenting coined by pediatrician and parenting author, Dr. William Sears, that promotes maternal instinct and empathy via near-constant touch and closeness through extended breastfeeding, baby-wearing, and co-sleeping. While sending the message that breastfeeding older children is a good thing was arguably the intent of the aforementioned TIME article, many felt like this particular image was a distressing form of exploitation that would only prove to stall breastfeeding initiatives, not help it.

Dr. Sears addresses extended breastfeeding concerns in his Parenting column, "Ask Dr. Sears." For example, if you're a mom who has bonded with your baby through breastfeeding, it's still working for you both, and you have continued to nurse past ages 1, 2, and beyond, Sears suggests handling criticism by shutting haters down with the facts. Science, Sears says, is on your side, stating that extended breastfeeding may lead to smarter children with improved vision, dental, digestive, and brain health. Research also shows breastfeeding can lower your risk of certain cancers, including ovarian and breast cancer.

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So in the end, and always, the only age limit you need to hold your breastfeeding self to is the one you decide on. Don't let the opinion of family or friends sway what you feel to be the right decision for you and your child. The older your child is, the less it's about nutrition and the more it's about comfort and familiarity when they need to be soothed. There are plenty of moms who breastfeed well past the recommended six month mark (even as old as 6 years), because it works for them.

Basically, if you're still wondering if there's a standard age limit with breastfeeding, there isn't. Trust your gut and ignore the haters.

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