World Breastfeeding Week Spotlight | Extended Breastfeeding Benefits & Tulsa Lifestyle Session

Photo of the beautiful Sarah Tilford of  Modern Village Midwifery  nursing her toddler son.

Photo of the beautiful Sarah Tilford of Modern Village Midwifery nursing her toddler son.

In light of World Breastfeeding Week... I'm opening up a bit about my own breastfeeding journey, and how it led me to researching the realities and benefits of "extended breastfeeding." Read on below!

Confession: I used to be fairly ignorant about breastfeeding. Don't get me wrong... I was breastfed as a child, and felt like I understood the benefits enough to plan to breastfeed my own children. BUT - I also felt like there should be a hard cut-off as to when babies should STOP breastfeeding.

I wasn't trying to be judgmental of others who had chosen differently. I honestly just hadn't been exposed to breastfeeding beyond year 1 of a baby's life short of a few Youtube videos that seemed to mock it; and because of the culture we live in, I assumed it was not only unnecessary, but ill-advised... and that the only people who nursed beyond a year were quite simply just a little off their rockers. (Ha!)

I remember at one point in conversation with someone hearing myself say, "if they are old enough to ask for it, they're too old."

But then I had a friend whose little one was still nursing past a year, with no end in sight. And yet nothing about it seemed weird... it was simply a mother nurturing and nourishing her child. I mean, nothing "magical" had happened at a year old that changed that. And then I had my own child. And he was an early talker... and could clearly ask for "nurse" by the time he was 9 months old. Uh oh. Did this mean it was time to stop by own self-proclaimed "rule"? I was eating my own words... So true to form... I did some research.

Here is what I found about the benefits of Extended Breastfeeding:

  • The World Health Organization emphasizes the importance of nursing up to two years of age or beyond (WHO 1993, WHO 2002).
  • The AAFP (American Academy of Family Physicians) recommends that breastfeeding continue throughout the first year of life and that “As recommended by the WHO, breastfeeding should ideally continue beyond infancy, but this is not the cultural norm in the United States and requires ongoing support and encouragement. It has been estimated that a natural weaning age for humans is between two and seven years. Family physicians should be knowledgeable regarding the ongoing benefits to the child of extended breastfeeding, including continued immune protection, better social adjustment, and having a sustainable food source in times of emergency. The longer women breastfeed, the greater the decrease in their risk of breast cancer.” They also note that “If the child is younger than two years of age, the child is at increased risk of illness if weaned.” (AAFP 2008)
  • The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that “Breastfeeding should be continued for at least the first year of life and beyond for as long as mutually desired by mother and child… Increased duration of breastfeeding confers significant health and developmental benefits for the child and the mother… There is no upper limit to the duration of breastfeeding and no evidence of psychologic or developmental harm from breastfeeding into the third year of life or longer.” (AAP 2012, AAP 2005)
  • "In the second year (12-23 months), 448 mL of breastmilk provides: 29% of energy requirements, 43% of protein requirements, 36% of calcium requirements, 75% of vitamin A requirements, 76% of folate requirements, 94% of vitamin BB12 requirements & 60% of vitamin C requirements." - Dewey 2001
  • “Human milk expressed by mothers who have been lactating for >1 year has significantly increased fat and energy contents, compared with milk expressed by women who have been lactating for shorter periods. During prolonged lactation, the fat energy contribution of breast milk to the infant diet might be significant.”
    — Mandel 2005
  • 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

  • "Claims that breastfeeding beyond infancy is harmful to mother or infant have absolutely no medical or scientific basis.” - Arthur Eidelman, MD,
  • Breastfeeding reduces the risk of breast cancer, with studies finding a significant inverse association between duration of lactation and breast cancer risk. - Resources

  • Breastfeeding reduces the risk of ovarian, uterine and endometrial cancer. - Resources

  • Breastfeeding protects against rheumatoid arthritis, osteoporosis, and cardiovascular disease, as well as decrease insulin requirements in diabetic women. (Click links for references)

Whoa, talk about mind blown. Not only were the old wives' tales I'd heard about breastmilk basically "turning to water" after a year completely untrue... but breastfeeding past a year could bolster my picky toddler's calories with healthy fats and nutrients, lower his chance of getting sick, and decrease my own risk of getting cancer?! 

Consequently, I put my pride aside and breastfed for as long as was mutually beneficial for my son and I, until he ultimately self-weaned just a few months shy of his 3rd birthday while I was pregnant with my youngest. This is not to say that extended breastfeeding is for everyone... or to put a guilt trip on those who chose to wean differently.

BUT - it is to give FREEDOM to those mamas who aren't ready to wean at a year, but are unsure that they will be supported within our current culture.

Mamas... I see you.

I can't tell you the amount of times I fielded the question "so when are you going to wean him?" after my oldest turned one.

But information is power; and rather than get annoyed or discouraged, I simply took every question as an opportunity to educate the one asking on the benefits in hopes of slowly turning the tide in our often backwards American culture.

And you know what? Slowly I DID begin to see change in my own little circle. There was less judgement and more acceptance, and I began to see the shoulders of other mamas around me melt away as they accepted wherever they were at in their nursing journey with their little... knowing that it's OKAY if your story looks different than those immediately around you. Because ultimately, it's just mama and baby as the two most important people in that equation (NOT the thoughts and opinions of others). So you do you, mama. <3 

BONUS: I got to document some sweet memories with a dear midwife friend of mine recently who wanted to freeze this moment in time with her toddler, knowing that she's going to blink and he will not only be weaned, but a teenager. (Seriously, WHYYYY do they grow so fast?) Enjoy a few sneak peeks at this precious mother-son relationship! <3