Everyone’s breastfeeding journey looks different. Some people choose to breastfeed for the first few weeks of their baby’s life, while others end up breastfeeding until their child is entering their toddler years. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of a baby’s life, but there is no right or wrong — fed is best, and the amount of time you can or want to breastfeed is a personal decision. That said, if you’re considering it, there are benefits to extended breastfeeding, also known as nursing past one year.
If you’re trying to decide whether you should continue breastfeeding after your child’s first birthday or not, it might be helpful to know the advantages of pushing on. It’s important to note that, regardless of the potential benefits, there is no obligation to breastfeed past a certain age (or at all). It’s a personal decision, and sometimes it’s not even one you make — sometimes your body makes that decision for you.
If you feel good about breastfeeding after their first birthday, go for it. Just be sure to start adding safe solid foods to your baby’s diet after six months of age so they’re meeting nutritional needs. Below, lactation consultants weigh in on the benefits of breastfeeding as your little one gets older.
What is extended breastfeeding?
The term “extended breastfeeding” is sometimes used in reference to people who breastfeed beyond a year. “It came from the AAP’s previous policy stating that parents should aim to breastfeed their babies up to one year and beyond, as long as mom and baby mutually desire,” explains Chrisie Rosenthal, International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC). “The AAP recently revised their recommendation to as long “as mutually desired by mother and child for two years or beyond.”
Some lactation consultants, such as Catherine Pestl, IBCLC, prefer not to even use the term. “I don’t think I would use that term because the length of a breastfeeding relationship is highly varied,” she says. “As the AAP puts it, ‘there is not a particular age before which breastfeeding must end.’
What are the benefits of breastfeeding past one year?
The benefits of breastfeeding do not come to an end when a child turns a specific age. “Breastfeeding continues to be a valuable source of nutrition and immunity for as long as it continues,” Pestl says. “Breastmilk is full of highly specialized antibodies and adapts with time to meet the specific needs of your baby. The nutritional density and personalized protection of breastmilk cannot be replaced. The microbiome of the infant, toddler, and child diversifies and thrives from frequent breastfeeding and access to breastmilk.”
Some other potential benefits of breastfeeding past one year, according to Pestil and Rosenthal, include:
- Reduced risk of breast and ovarian cancers for the breastfeeding parent. A 2002 study looked at nearly 150,000 women and found that for every 12 months of breastfeeding (with one child or multiple), the risk of breast cancer decreased by 4.3% when compared to women who didn’t breastfeed at all. A 2009 study of more than 60,000 women with a family history of breast cancer reduced their risk of getting it before menopause by nearly 60% if they breastfed.
- Provides up to one-third of a toddler’s daily calories and protein needs (aside from giving minerals and vitamins). The Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has also noted that breastfeeding is the best source of nutrition for babies, and that the mother’s milk adapts to meet nutritional needs as the baby grows.
- Breastfeeding has a significant effect on cognition, behavior, and mental health in children. A 2018 review of the psychological effects of breastfeeding on both mother and child found that there is a link between breastfeeding experience and cognitive development later in life, including improved memory retention, greater language skills, and intelligence. That review also found that there is evidence that breastfeeding can impact social and emotional development in children as well.
- Continues to lower risk of illness and boost the immune system. The CDC also notes that the longer a mother breastfeeds, the greater the protection against illnesses.
- Increases brain development and may help boost intelligence later in life. A 2015 study done by researchers in Brazil looked at nearly 6,000 babies from birth for three decades to see the long-term effects of breastfeeding them. The breastfed babies were shown to be more intelligent, stayed in school longer, and earned more than those who weren’t breastfed, and the longer they breastfed, the better they tended to be doing. And a 2022 study that followed more than 7,800 infants born in the United Kingdom from 2000 to 2002 until they turned 14 found that babies who were breastfed for six months or longer scored higher on tests measuring verbal and spatial relations skills compared with kid who weren’t breastfed.
- Can promote more bonding later in life. A 10-year longitudinal study published by the American Psychological Association found that women who breastfeed their children longer exhibit more maternal sensitivity past the infant and toddler years. Maternal sensitivity was defined as a mother’s responsiveness to her child, her emotional tone, her flexibility in her behavior, and her ability to read her child’s cues.
- Can protect against certain diseases. A small 2008 study that looked at 169 patients with acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL), Hodgkin’s (HL), and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (NHL) and 169 healthy patients. The study found that a longer duration of breastfeeding has protective effects against ALL and HL. A 2022 study that looked at 2,000 mother-child pairs found that the longer a mother exclusively breastfeeds, the lower the relative odds are of her child having asthma or asthma-related outcomes.
- Acts as a budget-friendly feeding option. Breastfeeding can be more cost-friendly than feeding your child baby formula or milk that needs to be purchased.
All of that being said, breast milk isn’t the only way to ensure your baby is healthy and receiving all the essential nutrients and calories they need to grow and develop. Always remember that fed is best and whether your child receives breast milk, formula, or any combination of the two during the first months of their life, you’re setting them up for success.
Tips for extended breastfeeding
If you think this is your breastfeeding journey, there are a few things to keep in mind. Extended breastfeeding does come with some challenges, namely, dealing with other people’s opinions. “One of the most harmful challenges faced by those breastfeeding beyond one year of age is the ill or misinformed opinions that others feel entitled to lay on breastfeeding parents and the societal desire to rob women of our sovereignty over our bodies, our reproductive health, our rights and our children,” Pestl says.
Dealing with judgmental friends, family members, and strangers can be tough, Rosenthal agrees. If you want to do extended breastfeeding, be prepared for comments and maybe even some stares, and think up some responses to have on hand.
A good tip from Rosenthal is to find some support in others, such as friends who are also breastfeeding babies older than one. “You can often find those parents at breastfeeding support groups, La Leche meetings, parks, and preschools,” she says. “You can also search out local groups of breastfeeding parents online and plan your own meet-up.”
Remember: Breastfeeding past age one is entirely your choice and no one else’s. You don’t need to explain yourself to anyone. There’s no reason to stop breastfeeding at age 1 if you don’t want to, so do what works for you.