Extended breastfeeding: Is it healthy?

Maria-Paula Carrillo is a clinical dietitian at Children’s and mother at home. She has done extensive research on breastfeeding for both of her roles. We asked her to share her knowledge about breastfeeding, particularly in regard to whether it’s healthy or not to breastfeed a child past the age of 1. This is her response.

Extended breastfeeding has been in the news a lot lately, especially after this controversial Time cover.

We usually hear about all the benefits of breastmilk during the first year of life but very seldom about what happens beyond that period.

Many women continue this practice for many reasons. You would be surprised to know that the worldwide weaning age is a little over 4 years of age.

Breastmilk after the first year of life can continue to provide some nutrients to a child/toddler. It is a good source of energy, protein, fat and calcium, as well as some vitamins. Yet, it’s also known that it can’t function as the sole source of nutrition after 6 months of age.

The benefits of breastmilk continue for an infant or child for as long as they consume it. These benefits seem to concentrate in human milk when production decreases, which allows the child to benefit despite a lower dose.

There have been studies showing that toddlers who breastfeed between 16-30 months of age have less illnesses. If they do get sick, the episodes seem to last for a shorter period of time. In addition, when sick, toddlers tend to have decreased appetite for solids but will continue to nurse, which helps at preventing dehydration, as well as providing some nutrition during their sickness.  It has also been suggested that toddlers who nurse develop fewer allergies (although other studies showed no benefits) as well as less cases of asthma.

Breastmilk contains immunologic factors that help protect the infant. Some believe that these may even increase during the second year of life.  On the other hand, it has been suggested that prolonged breastfeeding could possibly cause problems related to heart disease in adulthood.

This has been speculated as some studies have shown that the fat content of breastmilk increases the longer a mother continues to breastfeed. At the same time, many studies relate breastfeeding to lower blood pressure and a decrease in cardiovascular disease later in life.

Mothers can also benefit from “extended breastfeeding”.  Studies have shown a direct correlation between the number of years a woman spends breastfeeding and the increased protection from breast cancer. Also, breastfeeding past one year of age reduces the chances of developing ovarian cancer.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that breastfeeding should continue for at least 12 months of age and thereafter for as long as the mother and child mutually desire. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that infants should be exclusively breastfed for the first six months of life. Afterwards, they should receive complementary foods that are nutritionally adequate (providing sufficient calories, protein as well as micronutrients needed for proper growth) and safe while continuing to breastfeed for up to 2 years or more.

So, what should mothers do?  They should breastfeed their infants until they are both comfortable and willing to do so.  The controversy will continue and more research is on the horizon to find the advantages and/or consequences of feeding your child in this way.

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24 Responses to Extended breastfeeding: Is it healthy?

  1. Koby Laffer May 1, 2014 at 9:15 am #

    Nice article. This is valuable information for breastfeeding mothers as well as the parents. I know someone who still breastfed a 2 year old son and it’s healthy both to a mother and a child.

  2. Whitney Wyatt October 12, 2012 at 10:55 am #

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us!

  3. Maria October 7, 2012 at 2:02 pm #

    Though it is clear that the majority of women worldwide and throughout history have nursed their children into toddlerhood and beyond, women who choose to do so today may face an uninformed and frequently critical audience. Please look at the diagram of the breastfed toddler.
    http://www.thealphaparent.com/2012/03/diagram-of-breastfed-toddler.html?m=1

  4. Shelley October 7, 2012 at 8:59 am #

    Just do it, seriously. It is kind like eating organic. If you don’t, then you don’t care. It’s the best possible nutrition you could give your little one. The nutrition from breastmilk can be found NOWHERE else! Formula sets a baby up for a lifetime of illness that most people do not even associate with the formula, and the pharmaceutical companies hide. Women are tricked into believing they can’t make enough for their baby and give in to formula. Google “just one bottle.” Mothers, if you’re ever harasses about feeding your child the way God intended here is a hotline for help: http://www.bestforbabes.org/announcing-1-855-nip-free-the-best-for-babes-nursing-in-public-harassment-hotline.

  5. Janet October 5, 2012 at 9:08 pm #

    There are many benefits for the mom in extended breastfeeding. I get to see my happy, healthy baby/toddler (who’s never had a sick visit to the pedi) when I come home from a long day at work we snuggle and as she nurses we reconnect. It decreases my risk for breast cancer, heart disease, lowers my cholesterol, and releases hormones to bring my stress level down. The look in her eyes as she smiles while nursing is enough, yes I get a lot from breastfeeding my child but none of it is abnormal, and it improves their brain development and IQ. Baby led weaning allows an infant/toddler to gradually wean as their food intake, activity, and emotional needs dictate. The theory is that they are able to venture out because they have a secure attachment to their mother.

  6. Abby October 5, 2012 at 5:19 pm #

    There is nothing more anxiety provoking than sliding your nipple out of a sleeping baby’s mouth. OH GOD PLEASE DON”T WAKE UP!

  7. Janet October 5, 2012 at 12:56 pm #

    I guess over time I’ve learned the way I think about breastfeeding has been shaped by what society has told me. The more I have learned the more I realize that just about anything is permissible. Some cultures breastfeed till 8-9 years. While I won’t nurse my babies that long, I won’t criticize them for doing it. Breastfeeding has many continued benefits after one year, namely nutritional and bonding/security. Breast milk has more fats and other things so even though a toddler drinks less is still packs a power punch. There are fats and cholesterols in breast milk specific to humans only that are neccessary for proper brain growth. You can’t get them in a can. Go breast milk!!!

  8. Jenni October 5, 2012 at 9:52 am #

    Thanks for sharing such an informative article.

  9. Amanda October 2, 2012 at 8:39 am #

    Happy World Breastfeeding Week!

  10. Barbara October 1, 2012 at 9:48 pm #

    Yay for breastfeeding to term (2-7 years of age)! It’s only in recent history that it has been looked upon negatively or in an odd manner. The world average for breastfeeding is 4-7 years. The real harm is the formula companies marketing and historical scandals. Most woman, not all, do not need formula and are manipulated into believing their body is incapable of producing enough.

  11. wendy October 1, 2012 at 9:17 am #

    food before 1 is just for fun!!! yay for the most amazing food on earth!

  12. Clarissa September 29, 2012 at 4:15 pm #

    “On the other hand, it has been suggested that prolonged breastfeeding could possibly cause problems related to heart disease in adulthood.”

    Could you please provide a source for this?

    My children brestfed until 3 and 4, and if we have another we will allow the baby to feed full term.

  13. Anahit September 29, 2012 at 3:17 pm #

    It was nice to stumble across a positive breastfeeding article written by one of the top hospitals in the nation. I plan on letting mine breastfeed until he dedides he’s done. Happy national breastfeeding week!

  14. Nicole September 17, 2012 at 11:00 am #

    It’s good to see some positive information on breastfeeding from a reputable source. We are at 13 months and going strong. We’ll stop when he’s ready.

  15. Heather Garcia September 10, 2012 at 1:15 pm #

    My daughter is 30 months old and we are still nursing, people have asked when I am going to stop… I tell them whenever she decides she does not want her nah nah’s anymore .

  16. Kim Dolezalek August 30, 2012 at 5:28 pm #

    I have three daughters ages 20, 12 & 8 and all breastfed till they were 2 – 2 1/2 years old. People gave me a hard time for going so long because for some reason there is some taboo about breastfeeding a child that can verbally ask for it in this country. God gave us this perfect nutrition for our babies and young children and I believe that forced weaning is a bad thing. It is about time to see some factual information regarding this subject. All three started cereal at around 4 months old with no problems.

  17. Cassie June 5, 2012 at 7:30 am #

    Strongly in support of baby-led weaning/ extended breastfeeding after raising 2 children this way. Some of the most independent and interesting people started out this way. I am thankful that I was able to stay at home while my children were very young. I can’t think of a much more traumatic event than forced weaning.

  18. Raquel June 4, 2012 at 12:16 pm #

    “On the other hand, it has been suggested that prolonged breastfeeding could possibly cause problems related to heart disease in adulthood.” – Can you please link your sources.

  19. Jenny June 4, 2012 at 11:05 am #

    Thanks for the great info! I would never consider anything but breast feeding. If for some reason I had to supplement I would go to a milk bank.

  20. Shannon June 4, 2012 at 10:12 am #

    Sure is nice to see some factual information that supports Extended Breastfeeding. Breastfeeding my children is like a religon to me and mommas who make the same choices. So the next time you might feel compelled to ask someone flippantly, as though it is a joke, “how long you going to breastfeed?” It’s like asking them how long you going to worship Jesus Christ, or be Jewish? It stings when people don’t show respect. In that same respect, I do not judge nor condem a momma who can’t or chooses not to breastfeed. I know it is hurtful when breastfeeding mothers cast judgement on to mommas who formula feed. We are all doing what we think is right for ourselves as mothers and our children and families.

  21. Christine June 4, 2012 at 9:39 am #

    Mine were breastfeed 3-5 years. They’ve grown up healthy and independent and with fewer allergies than their parents.

  22. YouRcrazyWrong June 4, 2012 at 9:13 am #

    “The controversy will continue and more research is on the horizon to find the advantages and/or consequences of feeding your child in this way”? OK, how about we focus on the controversy of feeding our children man made formula, which as an inferior product, is being pushed onto stupid and ill informed moms by multi-billion dollar pharmaceutical companies. The controversy should be about the long term dangers of formula feeding on babies and mothers rather than a healthy normal feeding pattern which has been going on for a millenia.

  23. Murphy June 4, 2012 at 8:57 am #

    great post except one thing. Not ALL babies are ready for solids at 6 months old. Neither of my kids ate a single solid (we tried, they refused) until 8 and 10 months old. Both grew and developed normally. So these statements: “Yet, it’s also known that it can’t function as the sole source of nutrition after 6 months of age.” and “Afterwards, they should receive complementary foods that are nutritionally adequate (providing sufficient calories, protein as well as micronutrients needed for proper growth)” are completely incorrect.

  24. Cara June 4, 2012 at 8:56 am #

    Extended breastfeeding is something that is very beneficial for every child. After 6mo-1 year most exclusively breastfed babies are introduced to solids- fruit and veggies typically. They are still getting breast milk through out the day and sometimes night as well. I breastfed my daughter until she weaned herself at 26 months and I plan to let my son wean himself around the age of 2 as well. Most important thing is to do what is best for your family. whatever that may be.

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