Breastfeeding is associated with a host of benefits for both parents and babies, so it’s no wonder that some parents prefer to prolong the breastfeeding relationship as long as possible. If you’re currently breastfeeding one or more children, you may be wondering how to know when to stop or what the downsides are to continuing to breastfeed an older child.
In this blog, we’ll unpack natural duration breastfeeding, including:
Natural duration breastfeeding, which is sometimes called “extended breastfeeding” or “full-term breastfeeding,” is the practice of breastfeeding until a child self-weans.
While some parents enter the breastfeeding relationship with a target end date in mind, others prefer to let their children lead the way when it comes to discontinuing breastfeeding.
Depending on your child, lifestyle, and breastfeeding goals, either approach could be right for your family.
While studies are limited on natural duration breastfeeding, the available information points to potential benefits to both parent and child.
For children, extended breastfeeding is connected with a decreased risk of disease and increased immune system benefits. Additionally, research shows that extended breastfeeding may positively contribute to children’s social adjustment, boosting children’s self-esteem, independence, and cognitive development as well as supporting a strong emotional relationship between parent and child.
For parents, extended breastfeeding is connected with lower rates of breast, uterine, ovarian, endometrial cancers, osteoporosis, rheumatoid arthritis, cardiovascular disease, and Type II diabetes. It is also connected with potential mental health benefits.
While some breastfeeding parents may not ovulate while feeding frequently, spacing out breastfeeding sessions (rather than discontinuing them completely) typically kickstarts fertility again.
After six months, experts recommend continuing to nourish children with breast milk until they are two years old or older while also supplementing their diet with complementary solid foods and water.
According to the World Health Organization: "Optimal breastfeeding is so critical that it could save the lives of over 820 000 children under the age of 5 years each year. Breastfeeding plays an essential and sometimes underestimated role in the treatment and prevention of childhood illness."
While some parents, particularly in Western countries like the United States, may find the idea of breastfeeding for longer than two years unusual, extended breastfeeding is not uncommon in many other parts of the world. In fact, prominent research on breastfeeding suggests that the natural age of weaning for human children is anywhere between 2.5 and 7 years.
Breastfeeding benefits for babies and parents also continue to increase the longer children are breastfed. For many families, this means that the longer a child is interested in breastfeeding, the longer the parents may continue to support the breastfeeding relationship.
How to set breastfeeding intentions and meet your goals
If you’re considering natural duration breastfeeding, you may wonder about the social stigma associated with breastfeeding an older child.
There is manifold research out there on the benefits of prolonged breastfeeding. And while we can’t promise that the research will quiet insensitive comments, we can offer you wholehearted support towards setting successful breastfeeding goals.
If you’re hoping to let your child self-wean, it may be beneficial to revisit your “why” during moments of self-doubt. Reflecting on the reasons for your decision—whether they be tangible health benefits for your child, strengthened emotional intimacy with your toddler, or another reason altogether—can fortify your confidence and resolve when others question your decision.
Additionally, surround yourself with a supportive community. Encouragement from a partner, friends, or an International Board-Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) can sustain you throughout breastfeeding challenges.
If you’re not sure what succeeding in your breastfeeding goals might look like to you, consider reaching out to a lactation consultant at Nest Collaborative. Our job is to help breastfeeding families figure out how to make breastfeeding work—not just getting a good latch or establishing a solid milk supply, but how to make it work for families with varying routines, needs, and plans.
Finally, knowing your rights can help reduce barriers for individuals who are interested in natural duration breastfeeding. For instance, breastfeeding in public is legal in all 50 states of the US. Additionally, the PUMP for Nursing Mothers Act gives breastfeeding parents the right to have time and space to pump during the work day for at least two years.
Setting boundaries with older children
Some parents are hesitant to try natural duration breastfeeding out of fear that they may become a walking sippy cup for several years. However, letting your child guide the weaning process does not mean you have no control over the ongoing breastfeeding relationship.
To continue breastfeeding for as long as possible, it’s important to set appropriate breastfeeding boundaries with older children that will support your mental health and bodily autonomy. Setting boundaries can also help your child learn to emotionally regulate and respect your needs.
As your child ages, you may choose to:
Discontinue breastfeeding at night
Breastfeed only at specific times during the day or in a certain location
Feed one child at a time instead of tandem breastfeeding
Breastfeed for a shorter duration, such as for the length of a song
Often, giving your child choices when setting boundaries can help you both feel heard. For instance, instead of refusing to breastfeed at an inconvenient time, you may let your child choose between a short breastfeeding session or a longer one at a later time.
What weaning looks like in natural duration breastfeeding
Natural duration breastfeeding puts the weaning process largely in the hands of the child. Some common signs a child might be ready to self-wean include:
Frequently short or skipped breastfeeding sessions
Disinterest in breastfeeding
Strong nutritional intake from solid foods
Frequently becoming distracted while breastfeeding
That being said, some children exhibit signs of readiness to wean before it’s developmentally appropriate. If your child is less than one year old and is exhibiting the above signs, they might be going through a nursing strike, not weaning.
Nursing strikes can be worrying for parents. Because there can be both emotional and physical reasons for nursing strikes, seek support during this time by working with an IBCLC. They can help evaluate the cause and collaborate with you and any additional healthcare professionals to identify solutions.
If you’ve been breastfeeding your child for years, weaning may bring up a host of emotions—everything from sadness to relief to trepidation. This is completely normal.
Mood swings are common during the weaning process, but if you’re experiencing extreme or unmanageable emotions while discontinuing breastfeeding, share your experience with a trusted medical provider.
While abruptly discontinuing breastfeeding can have physical effects like headaches or fatigue due to shifting hormone levels, many parents with an extended breastfeeding relationship find that their milk supply naturally decreases over time alongside the needs of their child. In addition to a more gradual hormonal transition, this also reduces the likelihood of clogged ducts, mastitis, or the unexpected return of fertility during the weaning process.
Connect with a supportive IBCLC at Nest Collaborative
Whether you’re hoping to breastfeed your child for six months or six years, Nest Collaborative’s multilingual and LGBTQ+ affirming IBCLCs are available to support your breastfeeding journey. We accept all insurance, including Medicaid, and offering virtual lactation appointments during weekdays, evenings, and weekends.
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