How long should you breastfeed your baby? This is a common question, and or course a personal choice. The World Health Organisation recommends breastfeeding until the age of two years. But perhaps you are still enjoying your breastfeeding journey. You may be wondering if there are any benefits to breastfeeding beyond two years? The good news is that yes, there is! Below some information to help you make your choice.
At what age do babies self-wean?
Self-weaning is when babies gradually start feeding less often until they eventually stop feeding altogether on their own. This is probably any toddler-feeding mom’s best outcome. It will usually occur between the age of 2-4 years, though some little ones may carry on until about 7 years if left to their own devices. It is very rare for a baby to self-wean before the age of two years.
READ MORE: Five basic tips for breastfeeding
It is important to remember that babies continue breastfeeding because they still need to do so, for both physical and emotional reasons. It is not something that a mother can ‘force’ her baby to do. Once they no longer need it they will stop. There is no evidence of any physical or mental harm done by breastfeeding beyond the age of three years.
Benefits of breastfeeding beyond infancy
Although less research is done on breastfeeding toddlers than on breastfeeding small babies, there are indeed various confirmed benefits.
Breastfeeding remains an excellent source of nutrients
As long as your baby continues feeding he will receive valuable nutrients from breastmilk. What is also interesting is that the nutritional content of breastmilk changes throughout the breastfeeding journey, to provide what a baby needs at a specific time in their lives. Breastmilk in babies over a year contain high levels of fat, protein and various other vitamins and minerals. Breastfeeding can continue to make up a significant proportion of a toddler’s nutrition.
Some healthcare professionals may feel that breastfeeding will decrease a child’s appetite for solid foods. There is no evidence to support this idea. In fact, even though toddlers may eat a bit more when stopping milk feeds, their food intake will not yet get close to replace what they lost from their breast milk intake until they are much older.
Breastfeeding contributes to children’s health
There is some evidence that babies weaned before the age of two years are at an increased risk of illness. Toddlers who are breastfeeding between the age of one and three years have fewer illnesses, and when they do get sick it is typically less severe and has a shorter duration.
What is interesting is that some immune factors even increase in breastmilk after one year and during the weaning process. In a time when children explore, start going to nursery school and get in contact with many new germs this is especially valuable.
Increased intellectual development
You may know that there is a relationship between breastfeeding and cognitive development (measured by IQ scores and grades in school). The biggest benefits have been shown to babies who breastfed longest.
It is good for their emotional well-being
Society seems to forever push parents to get their children to be more independent and ‘grown-up’. But the truth is that they are small for such a short time. And a toddler of 2-3 years is still a baby at heart. Breastmilk continues to be an easy and loving way to meet little ones’ emotional needs.
It makes them feel safe and loved, soothes them when they are not feeling well or got hurt, and helps them to fall asleep. They will long have forgotten breastfeeding when this emotional foundation will still stand strong.
Benefits for mom
As a mom you always think of baby, and probably not as much about yourself. But did you know that breastfeeding is good for you too?
- It may delay the return of fertility and plays a role in natural child spacing. Of course, if you want to have another baby this is not ideal. Also, if you don’t want to have another baby you should not rely only on breastfeeding’s protective effect as a contraceptive, as it’s most definitely not fool-proof.
- It reduces your risk for pre-menopausal breast cancer. This protection becomes more the longer you breastfeed.
- Breastfeeding also plays a role in preventing other cancers like ovarian and uterine cancer.
- Breastfeeding may protect you against osteoporosis, contrary to popular belief. Although bone mineral density may decrease by 1-2% while breastfeeding, it is gained back and may actually increase when mom weans baby off the breast.
- Breastfeeding reduces a mom’s risk for other diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, heart disease and diabetes.
- Lastly, though this may not be the case for all women, many mothers report that breastfeeding helps them to lose weight and to maintain their weight.
Deciding what is best for you
Looking at all the benefits of breastfeeding beyond two years, it is most definitely the best option for your baby. However, many factors will play a role in how long you continue to breastfeed. You will need the support from your partner and the people close to you, something that we know moms often do not have.
You will also experience the challenges of breastfeeding a toddler, including having to draw boundaries on where and when they can feed, and dealing with night-time feeds. Of course, a baby’s personality will also play a role.
As long as moms don’t stop because they are given wrong information (it serves no purpose to feed a toddler), or because they feel that it is an abnormal thing to do (which it’s most definitely not), breastfeeding beyond two years have its benefits.