The Benefits of Extended Breastfeeding

We have all been told that breastfeeding is the best way to feed newborns, but what are the advantages to extended breastfeeding? How can continuing to breastfeed your baby as he becomes a toddler benefit both of you?

Extended Breastfeeding is defined as nursing a child past the age of one year.  In the US, only 17% of mothers nurse their child at one year of age.  By one year and six months, just less than 5% of American children get breastfed.  However, more information is continually coming out about the benefits of extended breastfeeding.  Fortunately, as doctors begin to advocate extended breastfeeding, and as the practice of extended breastfeeding is becoming more accepted, a higher number of American mothers are deciding to breastfeed their children past the first year.

Extended breastfeeding benefits both children and nursing mothers.  Children and mothers who continue to breastfeed in the second year benefit both physically and psychologically.

How Children Benefit from Extended Breastfeeding:

Immunity Boosters

Breast milk contains special immunologic agents that help to protect breastfed children from illnesses and infections.  Human breast milk increases in immune factors in the second year of nursing.  Incidentally, the immunologic agents in breast milk increase the longer a child breastfeeds.  As a child becomes older and begins to socialize with other children, he receives a higher concentration of immune factors through his mother’s milk, protecting him from possible infections.  In fact, research shows that breastfed children who are in daycare have a lower incidence of infections than non-breastfed children.

Extra Nutrition

Breast milk, ounce for ounce, is the most nutrient-dense food available.  Human milk changes in composition as a child grows.  Therefore, it is specially designed to nourish a child at any stage in his development.  Breast milk is specially designed for the nutrition of human children and is, therefore, more easily digested.  The nutrients in breast milk get absorbed at a much higher rate than those in cow’s milk.  It also contains properties that encourage the rapid growth of the human brain.  It is especially useful for a child who is a poor eater. A breastfeeding mother can be confident that her child is receiving a right amount of nutrition even if he is a picky eater.

Averting Allergies

Children who get breastfed have a lower incidence of milk allergies.  The longer cow’s milk is absent from a baby’s diet, the fewer chances that child has of developing a milk allergy. Doctors now recommend that parents avoid serving their babies cow milk until the child is one-year-old.

Comfort

In the recent past, breastfeeding mothers were advised to wean their children from the breast by the child’s first birthday.  It is when people introduce cow’s milk to children’s diets traditionally.  As any breastfeeding mother knows, breastfeeding is not about only nutrition, but about bonding, loving, caring and comforting.  A cup of milk is not an equal substitute for a nursing session.  Not only does a cup of cow’s milk not provide the same level of nutritional value that breast milk does, but it is also unable to soothe a childlike nursing can.  Breastfeeding is just as much about love as it is about sustenance.

Becoming a toddler is hard work. Many things in a one-year-old’s life are subject to change. Learning can be frustrating, and learning to walk can lead to lots of bumps and bruises.  Breastfeeding, however, does not have to come to an end.  Nursing is something that a toddler has been doing since his very first day; it is the one action that has remained constant for the child’s entire life.  It can still provide the same level of comfort for a toddler as it did when he was a baby.

Continued Connection to Mom

Toddlerhood brings with it a new sense of independence.  Little walkers begin to explore more of the world around them with higher interest and with self-determination that often brings with it a greater distance between child and mother.  A continued breastfeeding relationship supplies mom and toddler with a way to stay connected.  Children who get breastfed have a unique relationship with their mother as the breastfeeding partnership is something that only mom and child share.

Psychological Wellbeing

Ideally, mothers and toddlers should practice self-weaning.  Just as breastfed children are fed on-cue and not on a schedule, they should be weaned slowly and on their timetable.  There is no medical reason for weaning at any particular age.  Conversely, research shows that a child can experience adverse psychological effects when you abruptly wean him from the breast.  Parent-led weaning not only causes the child stress, but it robs the child of his method of dealing with stress.

The old rule to wean children from the breast by age one is misguided.  It is actually on the basis of bottle feeding guidelines; a child no longer needs formula at one year because it is safe for that child to switch to cow’s milk.  But breastfeeding is not parallel to bottle feeding, as it is not just a source of nutrition, but a source of comfort as well.  The breastfeeding relationship is an intense one.  For a breastfed child, the breast has been his source of support since his first day of life.  As he matures and discovers new ways of comforting himself, he will rely less and less on the breast until he has weaned himself.  Abrupt and early weaning could be traumatic for a child who is not emotionally ready to give up the breastfeeding relationship.

How Mothers Benefit from Extended Breastfeeding:

Disease Prevention

People once believe that extended nursing robbed the mother of calcium, thus making her a candidate for osteoporosis.  Actually, bone density decreases while a woman is nursing, but once breastfeeding has ceased, bone-mineral density re-establishes itself at an even higher density than before. People now believe that women who breastfed their children are at a substantially lower risk for developing osteoporosis later in life.

Breastfeeding mothers are also at a reduced risk of developing breast cancer, ovarian cancer and uterine cancer.  Interestingly, the more time a woman spends breastfeeding during her child-raising years, the lower her risk of developing these types of cancer are.

Accelerated Weight loss

Women who breastfeed tend to return to their pre-pregnancy weight more quickly than their bottle-feeding counterparts.  Continuing to breastfeed helps a mother keep the weight off.  Milk production is energy-intense.  The body burns up calories and fat to produce milk, resulting in weight loss and weight maintenance.

Child Spacing

Breastfeeding produces hormones that hinder ovulation; so long as a woman is not ovulating, she can not become pregnant, and she does not menstruate.  Some women do not menstruate for well over a year while she continues to breastfeed, which many women see as a benefit in itself.

Child Bonding

The bond that a mother feels with her breastfed child is passionate.  The act of giving child nutrition, attention and love all at once produces strong emotions that help a mother bond with her child.  Extended breastfeeding continues this strong bond until the child is more apt to express love with words and actions.  Slowly, breastfeeding get replaced by conversations, games and other acts of love.

Continuing to breastfeed for as long as the mother and child are happy in their breastfeeding relationship is optimal.  Hopefully, as more information surfaces about the advantages of breastfeeding past one year, more and more nursing couples will benefit from extended breastfeeding.

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