I know plenty of people who’ve nursed their children passed the 1-year mark. Heck, my own mother nursed my youngest sister until just past her 3rd birthday. In the online world, I chat frequently with mamas who’ve nursed beyond that marker. And even though breastfeeding after the first year of life is categorized as “extended” in the US., it’s much more common to nurse for longer periods of time in other countries.
While extended breastfeeding isn’t popular in the US., the benefits of it are numerous. After all, it’s not as though breast milk magically stops being nutritious once a child turns 1 year old. Breast milk has a lot to offer- a few key points from Kellymom (see that page for full citations):
- In the second year (12-23 months), 448 mL of breastmilk provides:
o 29% of energy requirements
o 43% of protein requirements
o 36% of calcium requirements
o 75% of vitamin A requirements
o 76% of folate requirements
o 94% of vitamin B12 requirements
o 60% of vitamin C requirements (Dewey 2001)
- Nursing toddlers between the ages of 16 and 30 months have been found to have fewer illnesses and illnesses of shorter duration than their non-nursing peers (Gulick 1986).
- In fact, some of the immune factors in breastmilk increase in concentration during the second year and also during the weaning process. (Goldman 1983, Goldman & Goldblum 1983, Institute of Medicine 1991).
Besides the benefits listed above, the moms I know are quick to point out that they enjoy the breastfeeding relationships they have with their children. They are proud to continue to share both the physical and emotional components of nursing with their children. In fact, I seldom ever hear anyone talk about extended nursing’s little secret…
That’s right, I said it.
I don’t say that to discourage mothers from breastfeeding into the toddler years. On the contrary- I gently encourage it. However, I do think it’s important to understand the differences in breastfeeding an infant versus breastfeeding an older child. I think moms benefit by having some idea of what to expect, because choosing whether or not to continue nursing into the second year and beyond is an intensely personal decision. It’s not for everyone. Here are some of my observations based on my experiences nursing an older child:
1. Toddlers are very easily distracted. It’s not unusual for Lucy to start nursing, nurse for a moment or two, then pop off to do something else. The amount of time she nurses practically always coincides with the amount of time it takes for my milk to let down. Ugh. Nothing like your toddler running off and leaving you with a milk-spraying boob.
2. Toddlers don’t like to sit still, even to nurse. Lucy is constantly moving while she nurses. Sometimes it’s cute- like when she signs “milk” or gently touches Junie’s face when they nurse together. Other times it’s downright annoying- like her new habit of kicking anything within reach. Lucy also enjoys shoving her little hand in my mouth so that I pretend to bite her. She apparently finds this hilarious.
3. You may have to set limits. With young babies, I’m a strong believer in breastfeeding on demand. The babies needs come first, regardless of what I’m doing. With an older child, though, it sometimes becomes necessary to set some guidelines. We’re going through this with Lucy right now. She seems to feel it necessary to nurse every 2-3 hours through the night. This schedule is unmanageable for me, so we’re in the middle of teaching Lucy that, “Mama goes to sleep, Daddy goes to sleep, Junie goes to sleep, Lucy goes to sleep, and ‘nummers’ go to sleep. No more mama’s milk until ‘nummers’ wake up with the ‘new day.’” Because two of Lucy’s new signs are ‘sleep’ and ‘new day,’ it helps to incorporate them into our little lesson. She seems to understand, albeit *very* unhappily.
4. You may have to reevaluate your breastfeeding relationship. See above. When I acknowledged that I could not continue our relationship as it stood (i.e. constant nighttime nursing), I had to evaluate whether I was ready to consider weaning entirely, or whether I simply needed to change one aspect of nursing to make it manageable. The latter ended up being the case. If something isn’t working for you, change it. I don’t feel *extended* breastfeeding is more important than a happy mama. If you aren’t enjoying nursing, it may be time to reevaluate things. This is *especially* important in a tandem-nursing situation.
5. It isn’t just about breast milk. Toddlers nurse for comfort, they nurse for reassurance, they nurse because they can. Could Lucy be healthy without breast milk? Most likely. Would she be happy? In the long run, yes. But right now? No. It’s too important to her. Lucy’s little world has been upset enough already with a new little sister and physical developmental like new teeth. Nursing is a standby for her- something she can rely on when everything else is changing. That’s why she’ll often nurse for only a moment or two- just to reassure herself that she can.
I’m sure there are lots of other differences out there, but these are the few that are on my mind right now.
Have you nursed/are you nursing for an extended period? What differences did you notice between nursing an infant versus nursing a toddler?