Most moms are already very much aware that when it comes to choosing their babies’ very first food, breastfeeding is the healthiest option. After all, it makes sense that a food made inside our own bodies would provide the perfect nutrition for our newest family members.
The question for many nursing moms then becomes, exactly how long should I breastfeed? Despite recommendations from the World Health Organization that moms breastfeed for up to two years and beyond, here in the U.S. it’s most common to wean by the end of the first year, with more than half of mothers opting out of breastfeeding after the first six months.
The latest science supports the instinctive wisdom of extended breastfeeding as it begins to reveal the many benefits that nursing your children into toddlerhood provides for their health and development. Whether to breastfeed—and for how long—are complex and intensely personal decisions, with answers as individual as each mother and her child.
If you’re currently nursing (or thinking of weaning soon) here are six incredible reasons to stick with it until you and your child are both ready to stop. Extended breastfeeding can give your baby:
1. An intellectual and mental health advantage
Even at three years of age, your child’s brain and gut-brain axis are still very immature. By providing complete nutrition and fortifying the new microbiome throughout this critical formative period, breastfeeding older children helps them develop properly in these areas. This extra health boost primes your toddler for sharp processing of new information and ideas—as well as overall social adjustment and mental health.
Numerous studies suggest that longer breastfeeding is associated with better psychosocial adjustment and language skills, as well as both verbal and non-verbal intelligence in later years. This small boost may be just the thing that gives them the edge they need to succeed in our complex world throughout their lives.1,2,3
2. A multitude of magnificent microbes
Not only is your toddler’s brain still maturing—his young microbiome continues to form too, and it needs a steady influx of probiotic organisms during these important developmental years. Gut health is at the core of overall physical, mental, and emotional wellness, so nurturing your child’s beneficial flora at this time really matters.
Your child gets his first collection of digestive bacteria from you—and your amazing breast milk is loaded with over 700 species of friendly microbes, along with the specific sugars these little gut bugs need to take hold in his digestive tract.4 The special milk sugars your child ingests (HMOs) specifically promote the growth of beneficial bacterial communities in your little one’s gut—such as the Bifidobacterium family, which control unwanted bacteria while supporting robust immunity and an effective gut barrier.5 Every time your toddler nurses, his maturing microbiome becomes stronger.
3. Vibrant health and immunity
In addition to supporting your child’s health by enriching his early microbiome, extended breastfeeding allows him to continue to enjoy direct immune system boosts through the high concentration of white blood cells contained in your breast milk. This would all be exciting enough on its own, but it gets even better! That’s because it turns out your breast milk is highly adaptive to your little one’s needs in real time.
During the toddler years, when children begin to actively socialize, they’re exposed to all sorts of unwanted strains of bacteria that could easily overwhelm an immature immune system. But breastfeeding through this period can give your child exactly what he needs to fight off microscopic intruders. If your nursing toddler isn’t feeling his best, your milk begins to adapt as soon as his saliva contacts your nipple—delivering just the right antibodies to help restore him to energetic wellness so he won’t miss out on the playdates he loves.6,7
Another reason delayed weaning benefits your child’s health is that the overall quality of your milk keeps getting better and better with time. After the first year of nursing, your breast milk actually takes on greater immune enhancing qualities than it had previously..8
Perhaps the best news of all is that the health benefits of extended breastfeeding continue long past the time you decide to stop nursing—and continually breastfeeding for 12 months or longer is associated with better lifelong health for the child.9,10
4. Restful sleep patterns
One of the many fascinating ways your milk adapts to the environment is that its chemical composition changes depending on the time of day. As evening rolls around, increasing amounts of serotonin, melatonin, tryptophan, and the nucleotides 5’UMP, 5’AMP, and 5’GMP appear in breast milk—and these restful chemicals may help your toddler adopt and sustain healthy circadian rhythms for a sleep-wake pattern that’s in sync with the rest of the family.11,12
While research regarding the correlation between breastfeeding and circadian rhythms is relatively new, studies have found that breastfed babies spend more hours asleep at night than their formula-fed counterparts—a welcome benefit at every age!13,14,15
5. Nutritional assurance
Anyone who’s ever tried to feed a toddler knows that kids this age can be notoriously finicky—which makes it a real challenge to ensure your little one is getting the proper nutrition. If your two-year-old suddenly decides he’s not going to eat anything but cheese and applesauce this week (or worse yet, French fries!), extended breastfeeding acts as a custom multivitamin to fill in the nutritional gaps.
As your child gets older, your milk continues to mature to support his changing needs, which means breastfeeding keeps offering new nutritional advantages over time. After the first year of lactation, breast milk undergoes a significant change—delivering additional fat and energy components tailored to support your toddler’s rapidly growing mind and body.16
6. Calming comfort and maternal bonding
Picture this: you’re at a local playground and your 2-year-old falls and comes running to you in hysterics. Or, you’ve optimistically brought your toddler along on a marathon session of errands and he has decided that throwing a tantrum in the supermarket aisle is the best way to show you he’s completely, utterly exhausted. Whether you have a weepy newborn or an exceptionally active preschooler, nursing is much more than just a source of nutrition—it’s also a crucial (and amazingly effective!) means of comforting and nurturing your child as he grows and develops, both physically and emotionally.
Here’s something you might not know: feeling afraid or abandoned in early childhood can impact kids’ genes and grey matter in the brain for the rest of their lives, according to recent research in epigenetics. When you soothe your child by nursing him, you give his immune system every chance of being at its healthiest by decreasing the amount of stress he experiences in his early life and as he gets older.
Toddlers are incredibly emotional and sensitive creatures, so whether it’s a quick breastfeeding hiatus after a grocery store meltdown, or a peaceful park bench siesta while you lovingly nurse your toddler’s upset and ouchies away, breastfeeding is the ultimate calming panacea for the often trying toddler years...for both child and mom.
Moms Benefit From Extended Breastfeeding, Too!
Continuing to breastfeed into the toddler years isn’t just something you do for your child—it’s advantageous for moms as well! A great deal of research supports the theory that the longer a woman chooses to breastfeed, the better it is for her lifelong health in all these important ways:
• Achieving and maintaining a healthy weight after childbirth.17
• A delay in fertility for family planning.18
• Lower risk of breast and reproductive system issues.19,20
• Reduced risk of certain cardiovascular troubles.21,22
• Stronger, larger bones in later life.23
• Healthy blood sugar levels.24
• Comfortable, healthy joints.25
Based on all the benefits to everyone involved, it’s clear that extended breastfeeding is an overwhelmingly positive practice. So, why are just 33% of moms still breastfeeding their babies at 1 year of age? Part of the reason may have to do with how our society judges moms who make the decision to continue breastfeeding beyond their baby’s first birthday.
Beyond the First Year: What Will People Think?
Sadly, even if they understand the benefits—and they’re absolutely loving the experience—many moms are hesitant to continue breastfeeding beyond the first year because of concern about the way others will react. Mom-shaming about the way someone chooses to feed her baby (whether it be breast, bottle, or sippy cup!) is never OK—and it always reveals more about the character of the person doing the criticizing than anything about the mom involved.
In fact, in one study on the social consequences of long-term breastfeeding, 44% of breastfeeding moms reported social stigma as a negative consequence of breastfeeding past 12 months, and 66% who breastfed beyond 24 months experienced some form of social shame.26
But knowing that many women experience unacceptable judgments about their nursing choices doesn’t make cold stares and mean remarks any less hurtful. While it’s impossible to fully erase the pain of others’ disapproval, surrounding yourself with a loving tribe of supportive friends and family will help bolster your spirits so you can maintain the inner strength necessary to feed your toddler purely from love.
Motherhood offers enough of its own challenges without having to consider the uninvited judgment of others. Only you can know whether extended breastfeeding is the right choice for you and your unique child at any given stage of his development—so trust your gut and stick to your guns.
To further build up your little one’s microbial community while you breastfeed, it’s crucial to optimize your own microbiome by supplementing with a high quality, time-released probiotic formula like PRO-Moms, designed especially for pregnant and nursing women. And don’t forget to sprinkle organic prebiotic powder into your favorite soft foods and smoothies to ensure that your new microbial friends receive the nourishment they need to thrive in your gut.
There are as many “right” ways to be a good mother as there are mothers themselves—and with the countless advantages it presents for kids and moms alike, lovingly breastfeeding your toddler is absolutely one of them.
1. Duazo, P., Avila, J., & Kuzawa, C. W. (2010). Breastfeeding and later psychosocial development in the Philippines. American Journal of Human Biology, 22(6), 725-730. doi:10.1002/ajhb.21073 https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/apa.12674
2. Clarke, G., O'Mahony, S., Dinan, T., & Cryan, J. (2014). Priming for health: gut microbiota acquired in early life regulates physiology, brain and behaviour. Acta Paediatrica, 103(8), 812-819. doi:10.1111/apa.12674
3. Belfort, M. B., Rifas-Shiman, S. L., Kleinman, K. P., Guthrie, L. B., Bellinger, D. C., Taveras, E. M., … Oken, E. (2013). Infant Feeding and Childhood Cognition at Ages 3 and 7 Years. JAMA Pediatrics, 167(9), 836. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2013.455
4. Breast milk contains more than 700 species of bacteria, Spanish researchers find. (2018, May 7). Retrieved from https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/01/130104083103.htm
5. Mueller, N. T., Bakacs, E., Combellick, J., Grigoryan, Z., & Dominguez-Bello, M. G. (2015). The infant microbiome development: mom matters. Trends in Molecular Medicine, 21(2), 109-117. doi:10.1016/j.molmed.2014.12.002
6. Hassiotou, F., Hepworth, A. R., Metzger, P., Tat Lai, C., Trengove, N., Hartmann, P. E., & Filgueira, L. (2013). Maternal and infant infections stimulate a rapid leukocyte response in breastmilk. Clinical & Translational Immunology, 2(4), e3. doi:10.1038/cti.2013.1
7. Protective Cells in Breast Milk: For the Infant and the Mother? - International Milk Genomics Consortium. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://milkgenomics.org/article/protective-cells-in-breast-milk-for-the-infant-and-the-mother/
8. Perrin, M. T., Fogleman, A. D., Newburg, D. S., & Allen, J. C. (2016). A longitudinal study of human milk composition in the second year postpartum: implications for human milk banking. Maternal & Child Nutrition, 13(1), e12239. doi:10.1111/mcn.12239
9. Extended breast-feeding: What you need to know. (2018, April 7). Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/infant-and-toddler-health/in-depth/extended-breastfeeding/art-20046962
10. Wise, L. A., & Titus, L. J. (2012). Exposure to Breast Milk in Infancy and Risk of Adult Breast Cancer: A Summary of the Evidence. Nutrition in Infancy, 307-317. doi:10.1007/978-1-62703-224-7_21
11. Aparicio S, Garau C, Esteban S, Nicolau MC, Rivero M, and Rial RV. 2007. Chrononutrition: use of dissociated day/night infant milk formulas to improve the development of the wake-sleep rhythms. Effects of tryptophan. Nutritional Neuroscience. 2007 Jun-Aug;10(3-4):137-43.
12. Sánchez, C. L., Cubero, J., Sánchez, J., Chanclón, B., Rivero, M., Rodríguez, A. B., & Barriga, C. (2009). The possible role of human milk nucleotides as sleep inducers. Nutritional Neuroscience, 12(1), 2-8. doi:10.1179/147683009x388922
13. Cohen Engler A, Hadash A, Shehadeh N, Pillar G. 2012. Breastfeeding may improve nocturnal sleep and reduce infantile colic: potential role of breast milk melatonin. European Journal of Pediatrics. 171(4):729-32.
14. Cubero J, Valero V, Sánchez J, Rivero M, Parvez H, Rodríguez AB, Barriga C. 2005. The circadian rhythm of tryptophan in breast milk affects the rhythms of 6-sulfatoxymelatonin and sleep in newborn. Neuro Endocrinology Letters. 26(6):657-61.
15. Cubero J, Narciso D, Terrón P, Rial R, Esteban S, Rivero M, Parvez H, Rodríguez AB, Barriga C. 2007. Chrononutrition applied to formula milks to consolidate infants' sleep/wake cycle. Neuro Endocrinology Letters. 28(4):360-6.
16. Mandel, D. (2005). Fat and Energy Contents of Expressed Human Breast Milk in Prolonged Lactation. PEDIATRICS, 116(3), e432-e435. doi:10.1542/peds.2005-0313
17. Dewey, K. G., Heinig, M. J., & Nommsen, L. A. (1993). Maternal weight-loss patterns during prolonged lactation. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 58(2), 162-166. doi:10.1093/ajcn/58.2.162
18. Short, R., Renfree, M., Shaw, G., & Lewis, P. (1991). Contraceptive effects of extended lactational amenorrhoea: beyond the Bellagio Consensus. The Lancet, 337(8743), 715-717. doi:10.1016/0140-6736(91)90288-z
19. Jordan, S. J., Cushing-Haugen, K. L., Wicklund, K. G., Doherty, J. A., & Rossing, M. A. (2012). Breast-feeding and risk of epithelial ovarian cancer. Cancer Causes & Control, 23(6), 919-927. doi:10.1007/s10552-012-9963-4
20. Rosenblatt, K. A., & Thomas, D. B. (1993). Lactation and the Risk of Epithelial Ovarian Cancer. International Journal of Epidemiology, 22(2), 192-197. doi:10.1093/ije/22.2.192
21. Stuebe, A. M., Schwarz, E. B., Grewen, K., Rich-Edwards, J. W., Michels, K. B., Foster, E. M., … Forman, J. (2011). Duration of Lactation and Incidence of Maternal Hypertension: A Longitudinal Cohort Study. American Journal of Epidemiology, 174(10), 1147-1158. doi:10.1093/aje/kwr227
22. Schwarz, E., Ray, R., Stuebe, A., Allison, M., Ness, R., Freiberg, M., & Cauley, J. (2010). Duration of Lactation and Risk Factors for Maternal Cardiovascular Disease. Obstetric Anesthesia Digest, 30(2), 106-107. doi:10.1097/01.aoa.0000370522.28801.21
23. Wiklund, P. K., Xu, L., Wang, Q., Mikkola, T., Lyytikäinen, A., Völgyi, E., … Cheng, S. (2011). Lactation is associated with greater maternal bone size and bone strength later in life. Osteoporosis International, 23(7), 1939-1945. doi:10.1007/s00198-011-1790-z
24. Stuebe, A. M. (2005). Duration of Lactation and Incidence of Type 2 Diabetes. JAMA, 294(20), 2601. doi:10.1001/jama.294.20.2601
25. Karlson, E. W., Mandl, L. A., Hankinson, S. E., & Grodstein, F. (2004). Do breast-feeding and other reproductive factors influence future risk of rheumatoid arthritis?: Results from the Nurses' Health Study. Arthritis & Rheumatism, 50(11), 3458-3467. doi:10.1002/art.20621
26. Kendall-Tackett, K. A., & Sugarman, M. (1995). The Social Consequences of Long-Term Breastfeeding. Journal of Human Lactation,11(3), 179-183. doi:10.1177/089033449501100316
Roberta Pescow is a writer at Hyperbiotics and proud mom of two amazing and unique young men. Natural wellness is a subject she’s passionate about, so she loves sharing information that helps others discover all the ways probiotics support glowing health and well-being. To learn more about how a healthy microbiome can enrich your life, subscribe to our newsletter.