If you’re a breastfeeding mom, you probably already know that you should continue to keep up the awesome work for a year. At 6 months, solids should be introduced but your milk is the key base for your baby’s diet. After 12 months though, many moms wonder, “Do I need to stop breastfeeding?”
Let me answer your question with my experience. I breastfed both of my daughters until they were 3 years old (well, the second took a little longer but not much). I weaned my first so I could get ready for my second child, and I weaned my second child so she could be more independent for school. I have lots to say on this and I bet you have lots to ask, so let’s dig in.
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Benefits of Breastfeeding an Older Child
Officially known as extended breastfeeding, there are so many great benefits to continuing breastfeeding beyond infancy. Not everyone does though, and that’s ok. You need to go with what feels right for YOU and YOUR BABY.
The World Health Organization (WHO) encourages breastfeeding for up to two years and even recommends going beyond that if it fit.
Why is continuing on with nursing your older child a good thing? According to the Mayo Clinic, there are many benefits for your child and for you too.
Of course, breast milk is the best for your baby, but as your child gets older, it’s still a nutritionist’s dream come true. The composition of your milk changes to accommodate your child’s needs. Talk about the amazing human body here! Plus, there is no age where it lacks nutrition.
One thing I personally loved about breastfeeding my girls while they were older was that they never really got sick. It was so rare. And in the few cases where they had sniffles or when we all got the stomach flu (what a horrid experience for all of us), they recovered so quickly.
According to the science behind it, this is because the cells, antibodies, and hormones in your breast milk are intuitive. They know what’s up and they keep boosting your immunity. How cool is that?
Better overall health
The longer you breastfeed your child, the better their health will be. I can firmly attest to this. My girls are strong, healthy, and smart. I am so thankful I breastfed them for as long as I could.
And no judgment…if your baby is ready to wean and seems less interested in nursing, then follow his cues. If not, keep it up as long as you are able to. No matter how your baby behaves though, I just want to add that for both sets, solid foods are important. Make sure you’re introducing them as you should be and are serving it safely.
Extended Breastfeeding Benefits for You Too
It’s not just good for your baby’s health. It’s also good for you. The risk for illnesses like breast cancer, ovarian cancer, high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, and rheumatoid arthritis all drop significantly for moms that breastfeed for 12 months or more in their life.
Plus, the Mayo Clinic cites research that says the longer you continue to breastfeed, the better your health might be.
Isn’t It Weird Though?
Nope! Not at all. In fact, your older child won’t be sitting there for a 45-minute-long feeding session. It will be more like a couple minutes. And the feedings are much less frequent. My girls never wanted breastmilk while we were out anywhere. It was always at home.
For a while, it was just the nighttime feeding that remained for each of them. With my eldest, I wanted to get ready for my second child, but with my second child, I wasn’t planning on having any more kids and I didn’t rush her. But personally, I got tired of having to nurse her after so long so I worked to encourage her to give it up. I did it very slowly and then was finally free.
But there are many moms that continue the process, breastfeeding their child at age 4, breastfeeding at age 5, even ages, 6, 7, and 8. Those are less heard of, but they do exist.
Take this mom who made headlines (literally!) by breastfeeding her older son. He was 4 years old. Or this mom who was still breastfeeding her 6-year-old daughter. There are some that shattered these records too, one even nursing her son into puberty! While I couldn’t have lasted that long (or longer!) as long as it fits for you and your child, you can go as long as you like.
If it seems odd to have a bigger kid on your breast, you can always pump your milk and let them drink it. This might be a great option too if you’ve adopted. You CAN breastfeed an adopted child. I talk about that in this post.
And Now, Cue the Criticism
Perhaps you’re having judgy-thoughts about those women I mentioned above. While nursing beyond 4 seems a bit uncomfortable to me, I have no judgment for these women in wanting to do the best for their children. Knowing the facts about how breastmilk can help children even as they get bigger, it makes it easier to digest, pardon the pun.
As I mentioned, I ended breastfeeding for each of my daughters around the age of 3. This was the right time for me. My youngest would probably still be nursing if I didn’t wean her, but I needed ME back, and I love her to pieces, but she’s a clingy little thing.
However, even when each of my daughters was closer to 2 years in age, I received judgment. From my stepmother! She never had children of her own and she seemed grossed out by breastfeeding in general even when the girls were babies. She’d make snide comments about it and make jokes that she thought were funny, but I found them hurtful.
My dad is a doctor and he point-blank told her to put a lid on it. That was during a Skype call that we were on while I lived abroad. This was when my eldest was our only child. She had been very sick and we’d had to go back and forth to the hospitals there.
Side note: going to the hospital in Asia is like how we go to the doctor in the states. It’s just where you get treated and each hospital has a specialty (maternity, cardiology, etc.) so it’s not necessarily an emergency when you go.
My stepmom said to me, “Well, it’s probably because you’re STILL breastfeeding her.” My dad turned to her, visibly aggravated and said, “You don’t know what you’re talking about!” She huffed and stormed off camera. My dad then turned back to the camera and said, “She isn’t sick because you’re breastfeeding her. I hope you know that. Breastfeeding her is the best thing you can do right now while she’s sick. She’ll get better faster.”
And she did.
Other people made comments about how I was still breastfeeding even when the kids were bigger. Here’s the stuff that’s been said to me personally:
“Wow, that’s weird.”
“Breastmilk isn’t nutrition after the first year.”
“She’ll never be able to soothe herself.”
“You’re just doing it because you’re afraid of giving it up.”
“Aren’t you worried she’ll never stop?”
I could seriously go on and on. I’m not alone either. My friend Crystal nursed both her boys until about 2 and a half years of age. She’s not sorry for it either, and would often commiserate with me about how rude people could be.
Both of us only nursed at home at this point. Crystal is one of my friends who’d actually been confronted for breastfeeding in public when one of her sons was a baby! We’re very passionate about supporting our fellow moms in breastfeeding.
What About the Rest of the World?
If your family isn’t supportive, or even if only some of them are, then it stands to reason that complete strangers will have something to say about it. Lucky for me, in Asia, breastfeeding older children is normal. According to Breastfeeding Magazine, the average age for weaning around the world is 4!
That’s not surprising, considering our country is so uptight about breasts. If you go to Europe, women sun themselves topless and no one says a thing. This is normal. We’ve oversexualized breasts in such a way that even women in America tear apart breastfeeding women because they think it’s disgusting. And that’s if you ask them about newborns and babies under 12 months!
And then there are some that don’t find it right for them, which is totally fine, but then go on to say they find it “gross” and “incestuous” like Shanna Moakler did a few years back. Immediately after saying this, she says she supports breastfeeding moms. So which is it?
What Can You Do About Breastfeeding Older Children?
First, I want to urge you not to think too hard about this if your child is a baby. Before getting pregnant, I never had a thought about breastfeeding. Once I was though, it all became relevant.
I really wanted to give up breastfeeding 2 months in and then it got so much easier for me. So I continued. And it was the right thing to do for me. I knew many moms like my friend Amy who finished breastfeeding her kids around 12 months for one and 18 months for the other. But I knew moms like me too with kids that wanted to keep nursing.
Don’t plan it out. Just go with it. And if you find after 12 months you just can’t take it anymore, then start weaning your child from breastfeeding. I offer tips about weaning in another post.
So, what is the maximum age for breastfeeding?
If you want to keep going though, don’t let negativity bring you down. Look at the facts, supported by the WHO, the AAP, LLL, and all the other organizations for health around the world. They have thoroughly researched the benefits of breastmilk and continuing to nourish your child with it.
You can keep nursing straight from the breast or you can pump if that makes you most comfortable. But don’t let anyone else tell you how you should be doing things unless that person is a licensed physician.
In fact, let me end with one more tale about my breastfeeding adventures and that was when I took my youngest for her checkup at about 2 and a half years of age. I told the doctor she was still nursing, and do you know what he said? “I think that’s wonderful! She’s a healthy little girl. Keep it up. My own mom breastfed me until I was 5.”
The pediatrician had been taken aback because my daughter spoke full sentences, using big words like an adult. He told me she was exceptionally smart, and he said not to let anyone’s negativity impact breastfeeding.
“She will stop when she’s ready, but if you want her to stop, you can slowly wean her,” he’d said.
So our pediatrician and my own father the doctor, two doctors right there, say it’s healthy and wonderful to keep breastfeeding as your child gets older. But how old? Well, that depends on where you want to draw the line in the sand.
Leslie Berry lives with her husband and two young daughters in Los Altos, California where she loves helping other moms get comfortable with motherhood and embracing the insanity with facts peppered with laughs. She loves eating too much sushi, exercise, and jamming out on her Fender.