The Pros And Cons Of Extended Breastfeeding

No matter where you are on your breastfeeding journey (trying to conceive, expecting, newly breastfeeding your first child, or breastfeeding for a while) this article will give you all of the pros and cons of extended breastfeeding.

Know that extended breastfeeding has significant benefits for both mothers and their babies.

Breastfeeding your toddler.  How long is too long?  Mom holding her toddler on the couch.
Breastfeeding Your Toddler | How Long Is Too Long?

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What Is Extended Breastfeeding?

In the United States, extended breastfeeding (or long term breastfeeding) is usually defined as breastfeeding a child over a year old.

How Long Is Normal To Breastfeed?

Society and science have two different opinions on this.

In the United States, it is uncommon for mothers to breastfeed longer than a year.

According to the National Immunization Survey, 84.1% of infants were breastfed for some amount of time in 2017. By 6 months this drops to 58.3% and at 12 months 35.3.%

This means that in 2017, the majority of babies were weaned from breastfeeding sometime between 6 and 12 months.

Society’s view on breastfeeding is different in other parts of the world.

For instance, in France, mothers typically only breastfeed for 3-6 months.

Whereas in Mongolia and the Philippines it is common practice to breastfeed older children until 2 years or older.

So while we are not used to seeing breastfed toddlers in the United States, globally it is not uncommon to see a child breastfeeding into their second or third year of life.

Science, on the other hand, says that human babies will naturally wean between 2.5 years at the lower end and 7 years of age at the upper limit, with most children self-weaning between 3 and 4 years of age.

With such a wide range, I think it is fair to say that it is normal to breastfeed anywhere from 6 months to 4 years, whereas normal is defined as the average age for children.

What Do Major Health Organizations Say About Extended Breastfeeding?

The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that infants be breastfed within the first hour of life and to have exclusive breastfeeding (meaning no other food or liquid including water) until the age of 6 months. After that, complimentary breastfeeding is suggested until 2 years or older.

Complimentary breastfeeding means offering breastmilk as well as other fluids and solid foods.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that infants be exclusively breastfed for 6 months, and then breastfed with complementary food for at least 1 year or as long as is mutually desired for the mother and child.

How Long Should You Breastfeed?

Doctors agree that any breastfeeding is better than none.

So, if you can do any breastfeeding, even just for a few days, weeks, or months, it will be beneficial to you and your child.

While there are minimum age recommendations for breastfeeding (generally exclusively for 6 months and then complimentary for a year or longer) there is no upper time limit for how long you should breastfeed.

It comes down to a personal choice.

A Mutually Beneficial Relationship

Mother lying down holding her toddler in her arms. The pros and cons of extended breastfeeding.
The Pros And Cons Of Extended Breastfeeding

Most moms who are extended breastfeeding didn’t plan it that way… It just happens.

As long as both mother and child are happy with breastfeeding, there is no reason to stop.

I personally thought I would give breastfeeding my best for 3-6 months and then excepted my son to start to wean.

Yet, here I am writing this article, still breastfeeding my 17-month-old well past his first year of age.

UPDATE: After I got pregnant with my second child, my milk dried up around the 4th month of pregnancy. My toddler weaned very easily as my milk production decreased at 20 months.

There might be other considerations for you too like whether you have had to give up your favorite foods like coffee and chocolate because it upsets your baby’s stomach. Or maybe even a more serious allergy like a Cow’s Milk Protein Allergy that has you changing your whole diet.

Extended Breastfeeding And Starting Solid Food

Even if you are planning on extended breastfeeding, you will begin to introduce solid foods sometime in your child’s first year of life.

Solid foods are usually started around 6 months old (depending on your child’s readiness) and in all cases will be introduced before their first birthday.

If you want to learn more about when to start solid foods when you are breastfeeding, you can read my article that goes in-depth on starting solids and homemade baby food.

Our bodies are amazing (girl power!) and your milk supply will automatically adjust as your child eats more solids.

The nutritional value of your breastmilk will also adjust in this process to complement the solid foods that your baby is eating. And, although your breastmilk changes, there is never a point where your breastmilk becomes nutritionally insignificant… So rest assured, there is still plenty of good stuff packed in there!

Your body will do this automatically to meet your baby’s needs, whether you start weaning during infancy or toddlerhood.

As your milk and body change, so does your child’s relationship with the breast.

Younger babies go from needing the breast for all of their nutrition, to older babies relying on the breast for comfort.

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The Pros Of Extended Breastfeeding For The Child

There are wonderful benefits (both physical benefits and developmental benefits) to extended breastfeeding for a child.

  • Nutritional Benefits: Breastmilk is specifically formulated for your child. It provides all of the nutrients (vitamins, fats, carbs, etc.) that your child needs. Even after your child starts eating solid food, extended breastfeeding will give your child a consistent boost of nutrients along with these other health benefits.
  • Immune System: Your breastmilk continues to boost your child’s immune system as long as you are nursing them. By breastfeeding you are helping your baby’s health by fighting off allergies, ear infections, colds, and other sicknesses.
  • Future Illness: Breastfed babies have lower cholesterol. They are less likely to be obese or to develop type 2 diabetes than non-breastfed children.
  • Comfort: The breast is an undeniable source of comfort for breastfeeding babies and toddlers. Extended breastfeeding can help calm your child when they are upset, sick, or hurt. They will know that mom’s breast is a safe and reliable source of comfort. An older baby benefits from emotional support as much as the nutritional value of breast milk.
  • Independence: while some might assume that a breastfed toddler would develop a dependence on their mother, generally breastfed toddlers are confident children with a strong sense of self-worth.

The Pros And Cons Of Extended Breastfeeding For Moms

The Pros:

  • Protects Against Osteoporosis: Although breastfeeding temporarily reduces the bone density for mothers, it was actually shown that mothers will gain back their original bone density or higher after breastfeeding.
  • Protects Against Rheumatoid Arthritis: Women who breastfeed for one to two years are 20% less likely to develop rheumatoid arthritis.
  • Protects Against Cardiovascular Disease: Breastfeeding moms are at a lower risk for developing high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and heart disease.
  • Protects Against High Blood Pressure: This article published in the American Journal of Hypertension found that women who breastfeed are at a reduced risk to develop high blood pressure. Specifically, women who have more than one child, and are not obese.
  • Lose Weight*: I’ll be real with you mommas, I personally had a huge weight loss right after delivery, but soon started to put weight back on. Some moms feel like breastfeeding helps them lose and maintain weight loss after pregnancy, and others swear that breastfeeding is keeping them from losing weight, and once they stop, the extra pounds fall right off.
  • Mental Health (Boosts your mood): Research shows that when you breastfeed, your body releases oxytocin. This is often referred to as the love hormone. Oxytocin will make you feel instantly calmer, more relaxed, and in love with your little baby.
  • Maternal Fulfillment: Mothers who breastfeed feel a sense of fulfillment and accomplishment for nourishing their baby’s body through breastmilk.
  • Strong Connection With Your Baby: Breastfeeding is something that only you and your baby share together. It creates a powerful bond for both mother and baby. While most babies and toddlers will not remember breastfeeding as they grow up, the feeling, closeness, and bond that was created during this time will last forever in a powerful way.
  • Delayed Return Of Your Menstrual Cycle(see also cons of extended breastfeeding for mothers): Breastfeeding suppresses the hormone prolactin which causes ovulating. This is nature’s way of making sure your body is ready to handle another pregnancy before you start ovulating again. Take it from someone who went 764 without a menstrual cycle, this is definitely a perk! Your menstrual cycle will likely return at some point while you are breastfeeding (probably without warning), so it is still very possible to get pregnant while you are breastfeeding.

The Cons of Extended Breastfeeding For Moms

While there are no known negative effects or developmental harm of extended breastfeeding for the child, there are some negative aspects of breastfeeding that impact the mother.

  • Lack Of Support: Breastfeeding is time-consuming. Breastmilk is more easily digested than formula, meaning breastfed babies will be hungrier more often than formula-fed babies.

    With formula-fed babies, both parents can split the feeding duties as well as other tasks like household chores, work, and caring for older children.

    A mother’s choice to breastfeed means that she alone will take on that responsibility, but she needs the support of her partner to pick up the slack in the other areas of the household.

    Make sure you educate your partner on the benefits of breastfeeding for both mother and baby.
  • Sore Nipples: This one is fairly obvious, but if breastfeeding is painful for you, especially because of sore, chapped, or cracked nipples, it might not be feasible to do extended breastfeeding.

    If you are experiencing sore nipples in the initial days of breastfeeding, that is completely normal as your baby learns to properly latch and your body is responding to the frequency of feeds.

    If your nipple pain continues for more than a few days, I would suggest seeing a lactation consultant who can check your baby for a lip or tongue tie, as well as give you advice to help the baby latch properly.
  • Clogged Ducts, Thrush, And Mastitis: All three of these breastfeeding-related illnesses typically present in the early days and weeks of breastfeeding and then are no longer as much of a problem. However, some mothers find they repeatedly develop these ailments, making it very uncomfortable to continue breastfeeding.
  • Social Stigma: Especially in the United States, people are quick to judge breastfeeding mothers.

    Whether they are judging mothers who don’t breastfeed, where they breastfeed, how they breastfeed, or how long they breastfeed, the judgment is unavoidable.

    If you plan to nurse a toddler, be prepared for unsolicited comments from friends, family, neighbors, and even strangers. Everyone will want to give you their opinion.

    My advice here would be to try not to let this social pressure prevent you from breastfeeding.
  • Biting: When your baby’s teeth come in they will likely start biting your nipples. The general recommendations are not to make a big fuss or reaction (your baby might think this is funny and want to continue) and remove your child from the breast for a few moments and then try again.

    My son did bite me a few times, and I considered weaning at that point, but like anything else, it was just a phase that quickly passed. Now he has a full mouth of teeth and he doesn’t bite, nor is it painful.
  • Undressing And Boundaries: A hungry or disgruntled toddler knows no bounds.

    Be prepared for your child to start undressing you in public, and getting very upset if you refuse.

    Toddlers may also demand to nurse at inconvenient times and not understand why you are refusing them. Especially young toddlers who have limited vocabulary and communication skills can be difficult to reason with.

    I personally have had to hang up video calls because my son (who is very strong) wanted to be nursed and started pulling my shirt down… Setting boundaries with your little one is a tricky area to navigate.
  • Delayed Return Of Your Menstrual Cycle: Yup, this is both a pro and a con! If you are still breastfeeding and trying to conceive another child, the process might be more difficult than expected.

    Because breastfeeding suppresses prolactin, your cycle might not return for a long time (mine didn’t for 13 months after delivery) or at all until you wean.

    If it does return while you are breastfeeding, your cycle might be irregular and difficult to predict when you are ovulating. If you are trying to conceive and not having any success while you are breastfeeding, definitely schedule an appointment to talk about it with your doctor to see what they advise.
  • Tandem Breastfeeding: If you have a second child who is also breastfeeding this can be very taxing on your body and may not be feasible for an extended period of time.
  • Monitoring Everything That You Put In Your Body: Moms get used to this monitoring process during pregnancy (no soft cheeses, deli meats, alcohol, retinol, etc.) but no one tells you that a lot of these rules continue through breastfeeding as well.

    On top of this, children might develop sensitivities to certain foods that you eat, and you will have to eliminate those from your diet while you are breastfeeding. My son was very sensitive to caffeine, so I do not drink any caffeine. He also developed a milk protein allergy which caused me to go dairy-free for almost a year.

    If you want to get back to living your life without worrying about what face creams you are using, or whether it is okay to have that second glass of wine, no one will be upset with you!
  • Weight Gain: Like I said above, for some women–like myself–breastfeeding can actually make it harder (or impossible) to lose weight. I try to not think of this as a traditional “con” but more just something to be aware of.

How To Start Weaning When You Are Extended Breastfeeding?

You might have found yourself here like I did. A first-time mom breastfeeding much longer than expected… Starting to wonder… How or when do I get my child to wean?

I think it is important to keep my earlier statement in mind:

If you and your child are happy with your extended breastfeeding relationship, there is no need to make any changes.

On the other hand, if you are ready to wean your child before they are ready, there are a few options.

Generally, it is easier to wean young children as they haven’t developed the intense emotional security with the breast as an older child.

Keep in mind, that depending on the age of your child, you might have to explain to them what changes are coming.

By the way, you can also use any of these techniques for night weaning as well.

Cold Turkey Weaning

Just as it sounds, this means choosing a date and stopping breastfeeding altogether.

For some mothers and children, this will be the fastest, simplest, and most effective solution.

Reduction of Breastfeeding Sessions

You can reduce the number of breastfeeding sessions you do throughout the day.

For example, if you are still nursing 4 times a day, try dropping one of those feeds at a time.

This happened to me, almost by accident.

I used to pick up my son from daycare and breastfeed him right away. I noticed that he was SO busy playing with his toys when we got home that he wasn’t interested in stopping to breastfeed for more than 1 minute.

I decided I would just stop that feed, and it went over great. He wanted to nurse a few times over the course of the next few weeks, but ultimately was ok to wait until bedtime.

Reduction of Duration Of Breastfeeding

You can also reduce how long your breastfeeding sessions are so that your child is consuming less milk.

This trains your little one’s body to rely less on your milk for hunger and thirst, and more on their meals, drinks, and snacks throughout the day.

This technique might be more effective with early morning or evening feeds when your baby is sleepy.

If your child usually nurses for 8-10 minutes on each side, try switching sides at 4-6 minutes.

Don’t Offer, Don’t Refuse

In this technique, you stop offering the breast to your child.

You might not even realize because you are so used to your routine, that you offer the breast more frequently than your child wants or needs.

So instead of initiating the feed, you wait for your child.

When your child is ready to nurse, you don’t refuse the breast.

This child-led weaning is the most gentle weaning technique besides natural weaning.

Natural Weaning For Breastfed Babies

When you natural wean, you let your child decide when they want to stop breastfeeding.

The age for natural weaning in humans is between 2.5 and 7 years old according to Katherine Dettwyler, with most babies choosing to wean between 3 and 4 years old.

As long as both you and your child are happy with the breastfeeding relationship, it is perfectly normal to breastfeed into the toddler years.

Natural weaning puts the child in control. The mother has no influence on the weaning process. This makes natural weaning the most gentle weaning technique.

At the end of the day, there is no best way to wean your child from breastfeeding. You may try one approach, or a combination of these techniques before you find a weaning process that works for you and your child.

My Personal Experience With Extended Breastfeeding

I am currently still breastfeeding my son at 17 months.

We did a combination of cold turkey and don’t offer, don’t refuse to get him down to one feed per day at night before bed.

My son started the weaning process when he was about 12 months old. He would come home from daycare and just be too busy to sit and nurse. I stopped offering the breast after daycare, and most days he never asked. If he did, I would breastfeed him, but for a short duration. After a few weeks, he stopped asking.

After we successfully dropped that feed, I decided it was time to wean him from night feeds.

This was a difficult decision because I cherished the middle-of-the-night snuggles that we shared… But I was finding it really hard to function with working full time and waking up once or twice a night.

To do it, I enlisted the help of my husband so that we could take the cold turkey approach.

I knew my son didn’t rely on breastmilk at night. His night wakings were purely for comfort, and he would often fall right back asleep only a minute or two after latching. This is why I chose the cold turkey approach.

It would have been impossible to do it without my husband’s help.

If you are a breastfeeding momma, you know that your child can smell your milk a mile away. If I would have walked into my son’s room and tried to rock him without breastfeeding, I would have had a full-blown tantrum on my hands.

For a few nights, when my son would wake up and cry for me, my husband would go in and rock him back to sleep. This gave him the comfort he needed and allowed us to break the night feeding cycle.

After a few nights, he just started sleeping straight through the night.

Now we are down to only feeding before bed.

I am very happy with where we are now in our breastfeeding relationship, so I intend to let my son naturally wean from here on out!

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I am the founder of Mommy Maker Teacher and a mom of two toddlers. With a degree in education, 12+ years of experience as a K-12 teacher and curriculum developer, and courses in childhood psychology and language acquisition, I share research-backed parenting tips and advice. I provide helpful content for moms on all stages of motherhood—from trying to conceive and pregnancy to postpartum, breastfeeding, and parenting.