When I was pregnant with my first child I had no idea of the benefits of extended breastfeeding. My friend asked me if I thought I would breastfeed. I responded, “I’ll try it and see how it goes.” So my daughter was born, and I was fortunate enough that breastfeeding came really easily to both of us.
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At that time, I hadn’t thought about how long I would breastfeed, but I knew I wouldn’t be one of those “weird” people who breastfed a kid past babyhood.
I had read that some people did that in this fantastic book (seriously, if you read only one book during pregnancy, make it this one) my friend gave me, but I was sure extended breastfeeding wasn’t for me. Surely toddlers were too old to breastfeed!
Little did I know that I would end up so passionate about nursing and its benefits. Five and a half years later, I have tandem nursed twice, meaning my oldest and middle nursed simultaneously and later my middle nursed at the same time as my youngest.
RELATED: Tandem nursing – Breastfeeding while pregnant or breastfeeding two kids at once
Other than the short break I had when my third child weaned while I was pregnant with my fourth, I have nursed non-stop for over seven years. And I love nursing a toddler – it’s a really unique, special relationship with great benefits.
Benefits of toddler breastfeeding
(Note: Although people often refer to toddler breastfeeding as “extended breastfeeding” or “extended nursing,” I don’t typically use that term. Instead, I prefer “full term breastfeeding,” because it is normal for toddlers to breastfeed, not an extension past normal. Okay, stepping off my soap box).
Breastfeeding your toddler has many positive effects for both mom and baby! We’ll talk about just a few here:
Benefits of breastfeeding on toddler’s physical health
Did you know that the World Health Organization recommends breastfeeding “up to two years of age or beyond?” While your toddler may not nutritionally “need” breastmilk at this age, it certainly still makes a positive contribution! While breastmilk composition changes after a year postpartum, it still provides much of the fat and minerals that toddlers need to thrive.
Not only does nursing provide calories to your busy little toddler, but it also adds an extra layer of protection for her immune system. There are immune factors present in breast milk that get passed to your child during nursing.
In addition, we are learning more all the time about how the bacteria in your gut (your gut’s microbiome) is connected to your health. You know what liquid contains lots of “good” bacteria, as well as the right kind of sugars to feed them? Breast milk! So extended breastfeeding is increasing that benefit for your baby’s gut microbiome.
Toddler nursing’s effects on mental and emotional health
Studies have shown that breastfeeding through toddlerhood has several benefits for a child’s emotional health too! One article, for example, showed turns out that extended breastfeeding is associated with stronger ability to identify their own emotions in boys (and can I add, what an important and wonderful outcome!). Another article shows that the longer a woman breastfeeds her child, the more sensitivity she shows that child even up to age eleven! This increased maternal sensitivity will positively benefit the child’s emotional health his or her whole life.
Health benefits of extended breastfeeding for mom
Not only does extended breastfeeding (or natural-term breastfeeding, depending on your perspective) offer health benefits for little ones, it’s great for moms too!
Have you ever worried that breastfeeding will leach the calcium from your bones, making them more brittle? Well, believe it or not, the opposite may be true! Bone recalcifies after breastfeeding, becoming stronger. In fact, studies have shown that women who breastfeed at least 33 months (this time frame can be spread over multiple children) have lowered risk of osteoporosis when they’re older.
In addition, breastfeeding decreases cancer risk. Extended breastfeeding lowers your risk of both breast cancer and ovarian cancer, two extremely dangerous cancers for women.
Perhaps most impressively, extended breastfeeding protects a mother’s metabolic and heart health. A study of 300,000 Chinese women showed that the longer a woman breastfed, the lower her risk for cardiovascular disease. Another study showed that longer breastfeeding duration also lowers risk of Type 2 diabetes. With heart disease being the leading cause of death in American women, and with diabetes greatly increasing risk factors associated with cardiovascular disease, breastfeeding is not only a Public Health issue for babies and toddlers, but a Public Health issue for mothers too. Who knows, maybe Americans women would have fewer heart health problems and lower diabetes prevalence if breastfeeding was the norm.
What is breastfeeding a toddler like?
In many ways, nursing a toddler is a whole different ball game from nursing a baby. For one thing, feeding “on demand” isn’t quite as urgent anymore. If you’re in the grocery store or some other place where nursing simply isn’t convenient, it’s okay to tell your little one that you’ll breastfeed later.
On the other hand, that toddler can be more pointed for his request to breastfeed too! He can “use his words” to ask, pull your top up or down, or any other number of behaviors to try to get what he wants. I’ve found that unless I want my top pulled down constantly, I need to wear higher necklines at this stage!
Pro tip: If you are breastfeeding a baby, come up with a name for nursing now that you’re comfortable with them saying in front of people, in case you do end up with a nursing toddler (even if you never think you’d nurse a toddler in a million years. You never know!). That way, you don’t end up at a social occasion with a two year old running up to you and yelling “Boobie!” Unless you’re good with your toddler yelling boobie in public. If you’re good with that, you do you.
Most of the time, nursing sessions for toddlers are short. They run up, ask to nurse for a minute or two, then hop down to continue playing. It’s actually pretty cute, like they just need to “check in” with you real quick.
The other tricky part about nursing a toddler? The acrobatics! While you’ll sometimes get the peaceful nursing session while holding him in your lap, you’re also just as likely to have him latch on while wiggling all over the place. But it at least makes things more interesting.
And yes, your toddler will wean. Some children eventually wean on their own, but others need a little encouragement. Whether you’re wanting to night wean your toddler or wean entirely, we have posts to help.
RELATED: How to night wean your older baby or toddler in a week
RELATED: How to wean your toddler – Gentle weaning tips
Responses to toddler breastfeeding negativity
Despite the benefits of nursing a toddler, there will be some who will judge, criticize, or try to persuade you to quit. Usually, I just smile and nod, perhaps thank them for their input, and then totally ignore them. If you choose to tell them to shove it up their nose (or other orifice of your choosing), well, that’s also an option.
1. If they’re old enough to ask, they’re too old to still breastfeed.
First of all, that’s just silly. My oldest made up her own little word for breastfeeding when she was only nine months old, and now all three of my children have used this term to ask to nurse.
Regardless, given that children can begin to talk at well less than a year old, and that the WHO encourages breastfeeding for two years or beyond, that idea just doesn’t make sense. Besides, your child “asks” to breastfeed as soon as they’re born, using cues such as sucking their fists and smacking lips. Why is asking verbally any different?
2. You’re making that child too dependent on you.
I suspect that people who say something like this haven’t been around a lot of breastfeeding toddlers. I can say from my experience with my three children that they have all had some of the least separation anxiety that I’ve ever seen in young children. While they’re happy to see me come back for them, they also rarely have issues with being left at daycare, church nursery, or with any other adults we hand them off too. They’re fine.
And after weaning, they’re still fine. They don’t cling to me or worry about being away from me. They just enjoy whomever they’re with.
3. You’re just doing that for yourself at this point.
This (woefully uninformed) statement is the one that really makes my blood boil. Yes, there are some beautiful, sweet moments I’ve had with all my children when nursing them as toddlers, but there are other aspects that are just a pain.
There are times when I’d love to be able to lay in bed in the morning without being pawed and begged to nurse. And have you ever had a toddler simultaneously nursing and trying to watch TV? You’ll find out the limit of your nipple’s elasticity when that happens!
In addition, I’ve dealt with major nursing aversion. Anyone who has had nursing aversion and agitation knows that continuing to nurse through it is only for their child.
RELATED: Nursing aversion (or when breastfeeding isn’t magical)
Would it be easier to just wean my toddler? Probably, after the initial freak-out. But as we’ve already discussed, there’s so many benefits to him when they nurse as older babies. So I’m happy to continue.
Besides, a comment like this isn’t a statement about me and my child, it’s a statement about the person making the comment. They are the ones who are uncomfortable. They can be the one who adjusts, not my child.
Conclusions on extended breastfeeding
I’m so happy to have breastfed three beautiful children into toddlerhood.
It hasn’t always been perfect, but I wouldn’t change anything. (By the way, if you want to hear more about my experiences breastfeeding a toddler and an infant simultaneously, check out this post).
Have any questions about toddler breastfeeding, or want to share your own experiences? Be sure to comment below! Until next time, Happy Parenting!