Dr Yasmin Imdad – Senior Consultant, Obstetrics and Gynaecology, Kinder Women’s Hospital and Fertility Centre, Bengaluru
As a new mother, breastfeeding one of the most significant activities that helps you provide nutrition to your child and eventually becomes your second nature. It becomes your moments of joy when you snuggle and feed the baby and enjoy its cooing and movements. While you continue to do so, you may not have thought of a particular timeline as till when you will continue to breastfeed or what would be a proper time to stop.
For many of us, breastfeeding our child continues even when they are a toddler or past its first year. This is something known as “extended breastfeeding” and has its own share of advantages and disadvantages.
What is extended breastfeeding?
While there is specific definition to explain “extended breastfeeding,” it is perceived differently in different parts of the world. For some places, it is a cultural taboo, and for others, it is perfectly normal to breastfeed a child who is one year old and beyond. According to The World Health Organization (WHO), exclusive breastfeeding is recommended for the first six months, and continue to breastfeed for to “up to 2 years and beyond” without hesitation.
Benefits of Extended Breastfeeding
The benefits of both breastfeeding and extended breastfeeding lie in overall improvement of infant health and its survival. Extended breastfeeding is entirely a personal choice and may not be for everyone but, its wonderful benefits for both the mother and the child must not be ignored.
· Nutrition: That breast milk starts turning into water or loses its nutritional value after some time of childbirth is a myth. Several research studies have found that the nutritional value of breast milk is retained during the entire breastfeeding period. Additionally, the composition of breast milk may also change depending on the needs of the child as it grows. Breast milk, after one year of childbirth, have higher fat and energy content, which are beneficial to the child.
· Bonding: As your child grows, its world involves more of independent exploration and being active than being cuddled or held all the time. Extended breastfeeding can allow the mothers to sneak in some time to bond with the child, snuggle and hold the baby close and stay emotionally connected.
· Comfort: When you breastfeed your child for an extended period, it can become your child’s source of comfort. While it will help your child relax during anxieties or sadness, it can become stressful for you as a mother. Breastfeeding and nursing can help the child regulate its emotions, sleep peacefully but it must not become the only tool to help the child.
· Overall health improvement for mother and child: Extended breastfeeding and nursing can have long-term health benefits. When you breastfeed the baby for more than six months, it helps in protecting the child from developing blood related disorders like leukemia or lymphoma, reduces the risk of type 1 and 2 diabetes. For the mother, extended breastfeeding can help reduce chances of developing breast and ovarian cancers, diabetes, obesity, hypertension, diabetes, and heart ailments.
· Boosted brain development: Although there are no concrete findings, but research studies have found that the toddler can turn out to be smarter, thanks to the Omega-3 fatty acids/DHA found in breast milk if he/she is breastfeed for longer and more frequently.
· Balancing breastfeeding with solids: Breastfeeding a toddler is different from nursing a newborn baby. They are not exclusively on breastfeeding and receive their dose of nutrition from the other solid food they eat. To balance out having solid food and nutrition from breastfeeding, try not to breastfeed as a snack or feed solids immediately after breastfeeding.
Challenges of extended breastfeeding
Extended breastfeeding can help you bond emotionally with your child, but it also has its share of challenges. Your child may want to be nursed at odd times and look for comfort at odd times, making it awkward for you. He is likely to become more verbal and tell you he wants to be fed and it might become embarrassing. In such cases, teach your child your signs that he/she needs a snack. Some other potential challenges include workplace issues like breastfeeding outside home especially during long working hours. Extended breastfeeding can also suppress ovulation in some women.
Additionally, many face criticism for extended breastfeeding the toddlers. A simple and non-defensive comeback for such criticism can be when you say, you are following your “doctor’s advice.”
Extended breastfeeding isn’t new and has existed in human history. It may work or become a challenge. Therefore, choose whether you want to breastfeed your toddler and continue till the child weans off naturally rather than forcing your child to stop due to social pressure and criticism.