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Extended Nursing – Breastfeeding Beyond the First Year

Extended nursing can be defined as breastfeeding beyond the first year of a child’s life.  This practice is healthy, safe and should be regarded as completely normal.  However, some Western societies have conspired to make it an almost taboo activity and pressure on women to stop nursing their children at 12 months old has become commonplace.  The disapproval of friends, family and even strangers can become quite a burden and this alone may prevent mothers from carrying on with what must be one of the most natural acts of motherhood.

Both the World Health Organization and UNICEF recommend that women should breastfeed their children until they are at least two years old and there are many health benefits associated with doing so. Breast milk can provide vital immunities, vitamins and enzymes as well as a great deal of comfort to your developing baby.

During a time when your toddler is learning to become independent in so many different ways, extended nursing can help to boost their confidence and provide a form of continual reassurance and support. Western culture tends to operate on the premise that by giving your child independence from the physical act of breastfeeding, they will be enabled to become more self-sufficient and individual.  Nevertheless, by ending nursing in an abrupt way, the opposite can happen and your toddler may suffer from what is known as ‘separation anxiety’.

Separation anxiety will often start to evolve when a baby is around one year old. By continuing to nurse your toddler, some of these problems can be alleviated. There are many advantages to extended nursing and some of the following may apply to you.

  • Children contract viruses and colds on a regular basis, at times breast milk is the only thing a child will be able to keep down and the ability to nurse will provide a huge amount of comfort
  • By allowing your child to ‘self-wean’, many of the difficulties associated  toddler tantrums can be eased
  • If you travel frequently, nursing is far more convenient than carrying around feeding bottles and milk and can prove to be a wonderful way of providing reassurance in unfamiliar surroundings
  • You may be able to delay menstruation for a year or more, though it should be noted that breastfeeding is not a reliable form of contraception – always use alternative protection

Tips for extended nursing

If you do decide to opt for extended nursing there are numerous ways to make it work in practical terms, which fit in with your lifestyle.

  • The way a toddler feeds varies tremendously from how a newborn baby does.  They may want to experiment with different positions and you will need to find ways to breastfeed comfortably
  • A number of mothers find nursing a toddler in public places a daunting prospect.  If you feel this might be a problem, try to limit feeds to morning and evening and before daytime naps
  • The recommended age for starting children on solid foods is 6 months.  As their intake and interest in solid food increases they will naturally need less breast milk, thus limiting the necessity for regular nursing during the day
  • If friends, family or strangers tackle your decision to nurse your toddler, try not to be defensive.  Instead, gently explain your reasons for doing so and point out the benefits.  Many people have prejudices simply because of society’s preconceived ideas on childrearing.  If they hear the facts, they may change their mind and begin to understand your preference for extended breastfeeding
  • At times the decision to carry on nursing can affect a couple’s relationship.  If this could be a problem for you both, it is a good idea to sit down with your partner and discuss your reasons for wanting to continue.  Make sure you listen to his views as well as expressing your own, then try to make a compromise. When confronted with the facts, your partner may be able to see the benefits of extended nursing.
  • As toddlers begin to explore the world of language, they will be able to ask when they feel the need to nurse.  It may be a good idea to adopt a codename for feeding, as this will save any potential embarrassment in public places
  • Sometimes, when children are unwell or teething they may not want to breastfeed.  This could only last for a short time or it may be the start of self-weaning.  Continue to offer your child the opportunity to nurse and see how the situation develops
  • Children usually self-wean gradually and you may end up only feeding in the evening, before bedtime.  The age for self-weaning varies and it is thought that many toddlers benefit from being able to do so, as it allows them independence to make their own decisions, which is a very important life skill

Diet tips for nursing moms

Many women believe they will have to drastically change their diet when they begin to breastfeed.  However, you may only need to make a few adjustments to the way you eat and drink.
Breast milk will provide all a baby’s nutritional requirements, regardless of whether you are eating properly.  If your diet contains insufficient vitamins and minerals only you will suffer as a result.  Try to follow a healthy and balanced diet, so you both reap the benefits.

  • Eat plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables as they provide essential vitamins, minerals and anti-oxidants
  • Lean meat and fish will ensure that your milk contains enough protein and iron.  However, it is important to remember that the U.S Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommend that due to rising mercury levels in fish, you should try to limit yourself to no more than 12 ounces of fish per week and avoid shark, golden or white snapper, mackerel and swordfish
  • Green, leafy vegetables are also rich in iron, as well as other important vitamins and enzymes
  • Dairy products are packed with calcium which both you and your growing child will require
  • Drinking alcohol when nursing is potentially damaging for your child, as it does pass into breast milk.  If you do enjoy an occasional drink, wait for at least two hours before feeding, to allow any alcohol consumed to disperse from your milk supply
  • Certain foods that are strong in flavor (such as chilli, garlic or raw onions) may cause your child to become gassy or even suffer from colic.  Though it is worth remembering that one baby’s reaction to a particular food may be vastly different from another’s.  The best course of action is to watch what you eat and observe your child’s response to any strong-flavored food.  You will then be able to eliminate anything that causes an after-effect
  • Make sure you drink plenty of water – it is very important to stay hydrated when you breastfeed (although this will not affect your milk supply).  Aim to drink at least 8 glasses of water a day
  • It may be worth continuing with pre-natal vitamin supplements whilst you continue to breastfeed; this will ensure that you receive all the essential vitamins and minerals your body needs.  If you are at all worried about your general health, make an appointment to see your regular doctor

As we have seen, there are pro’s and con’s to extended nursing.  Whether you choose to breastfeed for up to one year, experiment with extended nursing or exclusively bottle feed your child, it should always be an individual choice.

Try not to let other peoples opinions affect the decisions you make and don’t be swayed by the pressures that modern society can so often exert.  If you follow your own beliefs you will feel happy and fulfilled and this alone will have a positive effect on the contentment of your child.

3 Responses to “Extended Nursing – Breastfeeding Beyond the First Year”

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  • Carina:

    Yes, Beth, most mammals have a natural cessation of nursing–and if you look at primates as our closest living relatives, when you correspond the age to the corrected human age, we would allow children to nurse between 2.5-7 years of age.

    Every other mammal practices self-weaning. If allowed to self-wean, most humans would do so between 2-5 years naturally. I have yet to see a tiger, or a bear, or any other mammal stop nursing due to the Gregorian Calendar age of their offspring.

    Stopping breastfeeding simply because your baby reached 365 days of age makes absolutely no sense, if you look at it in a “natural” way.

  • Beth Knotts:

    To be honest, breastfeeding after around the 12 month mark does not make sense. Children develop teeth for a reason. All other mammals have natural cessation of feeding from the breast and is normally dictated around the time teeth are present in the young babies. That is a natural indication that ingestation of solid food sources should begin and eating from the breast should stop.

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