Here in the UK, our government recommends breastfeeding exclusively until the age of 6 months, and then as a supplement to solid foods until the age of 12 months. This advice is intended to be a guide, not a set of rules. A lot of mothers believe that this advice means they should stop breastfeeding their babies when they hit 12 months, but this is far from the truth.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) and international children’s charity UNICEF both recommend that breastfeeding should continue until the age of 2, and then for as long after as is mutually desired. There is lots of evidence that proves that the longer a child is breastfed for, the more pronounced the benefits for the health in the long term. So why do so many mothers feel uncomfortable breastfeeding their children as they get older?
The answers to this question are deeply rooted in our society, and are something I will go into more in the “social aspects” subcategory of this section. The over-sexualisation of the female body in the western world has caused a lot of women to view their breasts as having a purely sexual function, and therefore feel uncomfortable feeding an older child.
Of course, there may come a point in the nursing relationship with your child that you decide that you have breastfed for as long as you feel comfortable with. Some people reach this point sooner than others do, and this is nothing to be ashamed of. You should be very proud of yourself for nurturing your child in this way for as long as you have done! Other mothers are quite happy to allow their children to wean themselves from the breast when they are emotionally ready to do so; again, this can happen at a variety of different ages.
A lot of people believe that breastfeeding loses its value in terms of nutrition as the child gets older — nothing could be further than the truth. As your child grows, they will need to get nourishment from solid foods as well as milk; however the nutritional properties of your breast milk will continue to be amazing! It will continue to provide protection from illnesses, and the benefits to your child’s immune system will continue long after breastfeeding is finished. Of course, children who breastfeed still get ill, but it is clear from the research and statistics that the frequency and intensity of their illnesses is vastly reduced.
Nursing also has valuable emotional benefits to your older child. The world can be a big and confusing place to a small person; they are experiencing strong emotions almost constantly, and they haven’t yet got the emotional maturity to process their feelings and deal with them effectively. Breastfeeding your toddler will offer them comfort, security, and a safe place for them to work through their feelings. A lot of mothers (me included) have found that nursing your child is the best form of tantrum-avoidance! When your toddler is rapidly approaching meltdown due to overtiredness or over stimulation, a quick nursing session is often all that’s required to ground them again.
For however long you choose to breastfeed your baby or toddler, you should congratulate yourself immensely. Every day will make a difference to their future health.