Breastfeeding: Are there health benefits in nursing past one year of age?

I am a mother of three breastfed children. Once my children reached the age of one, I felt some disapproval from family, friends and the general public. Are there good reasons to nurse past one year of age?

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Debbi Donovan

Debbi Donovan is a Board Certified Lactation Consultant, as well as a retired La Leche League Leader. For more than a decade, Debbi... Read more

In the U.S, most babies are weaned before they turn one, though it's common for toddlers to still be nursed in other parts of the world.

The natural time of weaning will vary from child to child. In cultures where children are allowed to nurse as long as they want it has been found that natural weaning takes place between three and four years of age. Extended nursing seems to be the human norm.

In this culture, we often see breastfeeding only as a means of providing optimal nutrition coupled with immunological protection. Breastfeeding provides much more than that. Toddlers really enjoy nursing -- they don't nurse for milk alone. Breastfeeding soothes and comforts him when he is tired, sick or hurt. Nursing is your baby's way of touching base with you as he busily explores his world. Parents often worry that their child will become clingy and dependent if they are nursed for an extended period of time. Providing your little one with this loving and secure base actually helps him to become independent.

The health benefits of breastfeeding do extend throughout the entire time you nurse. A longer duration of breastfeeding has been found to be directly associated with not only fewer infant illnesses, but subsequently, fewer toddler illnesses.

Moms also benefit: The "mothering hormone," prolactin, relaxes you, while oxytocin stimulates loving , nurturing behavior. As mothers of nursing toddlers know, this can be very important to your mental health and well-being. Life with a toddler is not always easy! You also benefit from the intimacy that nursing provides. Taking time out of a busy day to cuddle is as important to moms as it is to their babies.

Extended nursing may delay the return of fertility by continuing to suppress ovulation in some women. Breastfeeding also provides protection against these diseases: ovarian cancer, uterine cancer and endometrial cancer, and osteoporosis. Breastfeeding also has been shown to decrease insulin requirements in diabetic women.

It is very helpful for moms who nurse past one year of age to surround themselves with a good support system. Seek out like-minded moms in a toddler-nursing group in your area. 

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