What are the benefits of extended breastfeeding?

The American Association of Pediatrics (AAP) has new breastfeeding recommendations. They still advise exclusive breastfeeding until at least your baby’s six-month birthday.

But they now suggest that lactating parents practice extending breastfeeding. That’s feeding breast milk for up to two years or longer if you and your child wish to continue.

That’s much longer than many U.S. parents breastfeed their kids. But there are some good reasons for the suggestion. Here’s a look at extended breastfeeding benefits and what it means for kids and parents.

Extended Breastfeeding Benefits

You’re probably aware that breastfeeding has benefits for newborns. Those same benefits extend into late infancy and your child’s toddler years. Unlike formula, breast milk changes to meet your child’s needs as they grow and develop.

Doctors consider breast milk the best source of calories for newborns, infants, and toddlers. It not only feeds them but also offers other benefits:

  • It provides antibodies and other compounds that boost your child’s immune system.
  • It provides needed vitamins and minerals, plus a perfect blend of protein, fat, and carbohydrates.
  • It supports better brain growth in young kids.
  • Babies and toddlers can easily digest it.

The act of breastfeeding or chestfeeding also has emotional benefits. It can help calm and soothe your child.

It also has many short- and long-term health benefits for little ones. Kids who drink breast milk tend to have lower rates of these health conditions as they get older:

  • Asthma.
  • Childhood leukemia.
  • Diabetes (type 1 and type 2).
  • Ear infections.
  • Eczema.
  • Inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn’s and colitis).
  • Lung infections.
  • Obesity.
  • Severe diarrhea.

Breastfeeding also benefits mothers, especially if you extend how long you are producing milk. These benefits include a lower risk of:

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Challenges and Tips for Extended Breastfeeding

Although breastfeeding for two years or more has benefits, it isn’t easy. As your child grows and becomes more active, breastfeeding can become challenging.

It’s also harder to hide the fact that you’re nursing and maintain privacy with a toddler when you’re in public. Extended breastfeeding is still uncommon in the U.S., so worrying about social stigma is normal. The AAP hopes to change that with these new guidelines.

And although breastfeeding can help you relax, bond, and enjoy some quiet time with your child, it requires a lot of time. A nursing parent is always on call.

If you’ve returned to work or have other kids to attend to, extended breastfeeding can feel overwhelming or cause stress. Long-term breastfeeding may also take a toll on your relationship with your partner.

Extended breastfeeding doesn’t work for everyone, and doctors understand that. Talk to your care team if you want to keep nursing but have barriers. They can support you and help you find solutions like:

  • Pumping breast milk so other family members or caregivers can feed your child.
  • Opting for partial breastfeeding, either alternating or mixing feeds with formula or solid food or only breastfeeding at night.
  • Plan a weaning timeline that works for you and your child.

As your baby grows, any amount of breast milk has benefits. But the most important thing is that you’re feeding your child, and they’re growing well.

Breastfeeding and Solid Foods

Babies don’t need solid food before six months. Feeding your baby cereal or other food before they are six months old increases their risk of becoming overweight.

You can begin introducing solid foods at six months old. But babies can only eat a few spoonfuls of food at a time. Breast milk (or formula) should still provide most of your baby’s food.

A good thing about breastfeeding and introducing solids is that your breast milk has different flavors depending on your diet. Your baby has gotten used to that, so they’re more likely to accept new foods. As you introduce solid foods:

  • Alternate breastfeeding or breast milk from a bottle with solid food feeding.
  • Express milk and mix it with infant cereal, pureed fruits, or vegetables.
  • Feed solid food and let your child drink breast milk from a cup.

When introducing solid foods, only add one new food at a time. This ensures your child tolerates the food and doesn’t have an allergic response.

What Age to Stop Breastfeeding

There is no set age to stop breastfeeding. It’s a personal decision between you and your child.

Some kids want to keep going past their second birthday. Others are too distracted or independent to nurse after their first birthday.

And many mothers don’t have the flexibility or support to nurse long-term because of work or other needs on their time. You’ll know when you’re ready to stop. These are signs your child is ready to wean from breastfeeding:

  • They fuss when breastfeeding.
  • They nurse for shorter periods than before.
  • They seem to want comfort from your breast instead of milk.

If you want to keep offering breast milk, you can pump your milk and offer it in a bottle or cup. That gives your child the benefits of extended breastfeeding without feeding from your breast.

A gradual decrease is the easiest way to wean if both are ready to stop. It’s best, physically and emotionally, to allow the process to take some time.

You can stop one feeding a day and then more over a few weeks. As you nurse or pump less often, your body will gradually produce less and less milk.

What If You Can’t Breastfeed?

Breastfeeding doesn’t always come naturally to new mothers. Many people have problems when starting, like:

  • Blocked milk ducts.
  • Breast pain or sore nipples.
  • Engorged breasts.
  • Latching difficulties.
  • Low milk supply.

These make it hard to get started and easier to stop. If you have trouble starting or sticking with breastfeeding, ask for help. Your doctor can refer you to a lactation consultant who helps with breastfeeding.

Some mothers can’t breastfeed because of health issues or the medicines they take. Or their baby might have a health issue that prevents them from nursing.

Human breast milk banks are an option, but infant formula is completely acceptable too. It’s not your or your baby’s fault if breastfeeding doesn’t work for you.

The most vital thing is to keep talking to your care team. They can provide the advice and support you need to nourish your kids, no matter how you do it.

American Academy of Pediatrics. Policy Statement: Breastfeeding and the Use of Human Milk. LINK

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