When my first baby was born I was really hoping to just make it to six weeks breastfeeding. Then once I made that goal I wanted to make it to six months. Then I wanted to make it to a year. And you get the idea..
I had always heard that I could wean once my baby hit 12 months and switch to cow's milk. But why? Are there any benefits to breastfeeding after 1 year? Well, I've discovered that pretty much the same benefits that apply to nursing past 6 months apply to nursing past 1.
I have learned a lot since those early breastfeeding days and now that my baby boy has just turned one I have no intention of weaning anytime soon.
WHO and UNICEF both recommend breastfeeding until at least 2 years of age and beyond if desired.
The AAP recommends breastfeeding until 12 months and then for as long as the mother and baby want to continue.
Why switch to cow's milk?
Once my daughter made it to 12 months I decided to introduce her to cow's milk. I didn't really want to wean completely but I did want to get pregnant again so I thought maybe introducing cow's milk would help things along. I heard it was the norm to switch around 1 but I didn't really know why. I gave it a try and she hated it. Pretty much refused to drink it. Once I talked to my pediatrician I was assured that she did not need cow's milk in her diet and that other forms of calcium and protein including breast milk were just fine. I ended up weaning her later on in her second year once I was pregnant again, but she never did become a cow's milk drinker.
So what is with the push to cow's milk? Breast milk is still a superior product to cow's milk or any other milk you can buy. Since it is recommended that breast milk or formula be the main source of nutrition for babies until age one; many people think of that age as the time to make the change. But even though your baby may be able to drink cow's milk at one does not mean she needs it. While there may be a desire to switch from bottles to cups around this age this should have no bearing on breastfeeding since it is not the same thing as bottle feeding. Both of my babies happily drank out of cups in addition to breastfeeding.
In many parts of the world children normally breastfeed until between 2-4 years old. If left to wean when they are ready this is the norm.
As I learned more about extended breastfeeding it surprised me to learn that in our country only about 25% of mothers are still breastfeeding at one year. This is definitely due to a lack of support; whether that is due to short maternity leaves, lack of flexible work solutions for breastfeeding and pumping, or the cultural expectation that mothers wean around a year.
Pumping while working full time is not easy and I do not blame any mother who is ready to hang up the pump at the one year mark. The cultural expectation that babies should be weaned around a year is pretty ingrained as well. There is no real reason for it except that it became the expectation as bottle feeding was really pushed in the last couple of generations. Some people only associate a breast as a sexual object instead of it's purpose for feeding, so they may find it weird or bothersome to see an older looking baby or toddler at the breast. This is definitely their issue; not yours, so do not concern yourself with it!
Making it to one year breastfeeding is a huge accomplishment and should be commended. Hopefully as we learn more about the benefits of breastfeeding there will be a push for more support for mothers.
You may also just be ready to move on from breastfeeding after a year. Even if you can continue some mothers may have reasons that they feel done. This is okay too.
Benefits of breastfeeding after 1 year
So what are some reasons to keep going after 1 year? Well, the nutrition in breast milk does not suddenly go away at 1 year. Even though we may have that age in our heads as a good time to wean there really is no reason.
Breast milk doesn't suddenly change or lose its benefits. It is still the most nutritious and balanced food your baby is eating. Breast milk also changes it composition and nutrition to meet the needs of your baby as they age. It is constantly changing and providing them with exactly what they need. This is an amazing benefit that you will not find in a store bought milk.
The immunological benefits to your child continue as long as you breastfeed. In fact they may be more helpful as your baby enters toddlerhood and is exposed to more illnesses.
The antibodies in breast milk are still extremely helpful if your baby does get sick. As long as your baby is breastfeeding they are still getting that benefit, and common illnesses will be more mild or shorter in duration.
Many of the medical breastfeeding benefits such as protection from diseases later in life are related to the duration of breastfeeding. The longer you breastfeed the more likely you and your baby are to receive these benefits.
A huge reason to continue breastfeeding past one year is the close bond and connection it provides with your child. Breastfeeding can be a big source of comfort as your baby transitions from baby to toddler. Sometimes it may be the only food your baby will eat and it is a wonderful tool to fall back on when you need to comfort your baby.
Letting your baby wean when they are ready may help you avoid unnecessary stress for both of you.
And the biggest benefit to breastfeeding past 1?
This is the easiest and most enjoyable breastfeeding will be. You have already set the weaning in motion whether you realize it or not. Your baby has started weaning as soon as they started solids. Your baby may only be nursing three times a day or maybe five. Maybe they only nurse before going to sleep. Whatever it is; this is a sweet time in your breastfeeding relationship. It is a special bonding time but it is temporary. Enjoy it and do not worry about what other people think or say.
If breastfeeding past one is enjoyable to you and your baby there really is no need to stop. The benefits of breastfeeding last a lifetime and the immediate benefits are still there as long as you are still going.
As for me, I have no intention of fully weaning my one year old anytime soon if I can help it. I am not pushing my son to drop feedings and I would like to let him wean at his own pace. When he is ready I will respect that as well. If the time comes when I need to push him towards weaning it will be done in a gentle way. My daughter weaned on her own but I was pregnant. I would love the experience of nursing a baby a little longer this time around.
Please let me know, do you have any thoughts on breastfeeding past 1 year?