When you start breastfeeding, you probably don’t have a timeline in mind of how long you’re going to do it. You’re just trying to make it through the sore nipples, sleeplessness, and marathon nursing sessions. Likely, your main goal is to get the hang of breastfeeding… and stay sane in the process.

But then you hit your stride. Your baby has their latch down, and you begin to get into a nursing routine. For many, breastfeeding eventually becomes second nature, and you may begin to enjoy those times that you can finally sit down and snuggle and feed your little one.

If you’ve gotten to a place where breastfeeding is working well for you and your baby, you might be starting to wonder: When am I supposed to stop? You may have even heard about something called “extended breastfeeding” or wondered what it was like to breastfeed an older baby or toddler.

As you ponder the idea of nursing beyond the first few months, or even past the first year, you’re probably full of questions. So many questions. That’s totally normal. And you’ve come to the right place, because we’ve got answers. Read on…

The term “extended breastfeeding” has a different meaning depending on who you are, where you live, and who you ask.

In some cultures, it’s perfectly normal to breastfeed well past the first year of life, so the idea of breastfeeding a baby past 12 months isn’t “extended” at all. Even in the United States, there’s a wide range of “normal” when it comes to breastfeeding.

According to the CDC, about 36% of babies are still breastfeeding at 12 months, while about 15% are still doing so by 18 months. However, you’ll find that many people think that breastfeeding past the minimum suggestions, or even the first few months is extended breastfeeding.

Most major health organizations recommend nursing your baby for a minimum of 12 months, but many health professionals recommend even longer than that. Here’s what major medical organizations have to say about extended breastfeeding:

  • The Academy of American Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that babies be exclusively breastfed for the first 6 months, with its continuation lasting for at least 1 year. After that, they recommend breastfeeding as long as “mutually desired by mother and infant.”
  • The World Health Organization (WHO) also recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months, and then continuing to breastfeed for “up to 2 years and beyond.”
  • Like the AAP and WHO, the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) recommends continuing to breastfeed for at least 1 year, and says that the health of moms and babies is optimal “when breastfeeding continues for at least 2 years.”

Extended breastfeeding isn’t for everyone (and that’s OK!), but there’s no denying that it has wonderful benefits for both breastfeeding parents and children.

Nutrition

The idea that your milk “turns to water” or lacks nutritional value after a certain period is a myth. Research has found that breast milk retains its nutritional quality for the entire duration of breastfeeding. Plus, its composition may change based on the needs of your growing child.

For example, one study found that the nutritional content of breast milk mostly stays the same during the second year of life. While zinc and potassium decrease, total protein increases. No changes were observed in the lactose, fat, iron, and potassium contents of the milk.

Another study found that breast milk after 1 year had higher energy and fat contents, which may be beneficial to babies. “During prolonged lactation, the fat energy contribution of breast milk to the infant diet might be significant,” the researchers surmised.

Bonding

While there are certainly ways to bond with your child if you are not breastfeeding, any parent of a toddler will tell you that all the cuddling and closeness of those early months become harder to come by once your baby is mobile and exploring.

Many breastfeeding parents say that nursing becomes the one time each day they get to settle in with their child and stay connected.

Comfort

If you continue to breastfeed your child for an extended period, you’ll likely find that your breasts become the ultimate source of comfort for your baby.

This has pluses and minuses, as it can sometimes feel stressful to be the main person your child comes to when they’re upset or hurt. At the same time, nursing is such a wonderful tool for relaxing your child and helping them regulate their emotions.

Future health of the parent and baby

Nursing isn’t just healthy during the here and now. Extended breastfeeding offers both the parent and baby long-term health benefits.

Babies

The American Academy of American Pediatrics (AAP) explains that for children who have a family history of allergies, breastfeeding for at least 4 months can protect them from developing allergies later in life.

Breastfeeding for more than 6 months can protect children from developing leukemia and lymphoma, according to the AAP. Breastfeeding also reduces the risk of developing type 1 and 2 diabetes.

Breastfeeding parent

According to the Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine (ABM), a longer duration of breastfeeding is associated with maternal disease reduction and protection. It reduces the risk of breast cancer, ovarian cancer, diabetes, hypertension, obesity, and heart attack, says the ABM.

Extended breastfeeding is a great choice for many families, but it usually doesn’t come without some reservations and worries. Here are some of the top concerns parents face when they’re considering extended breastfeeding.

Social judgment

There’s no denying that extended breastfeeding isn’t always accepted by the rest of society. While many parents nurse their children past 12 months —and even past 2 years — it’s often not a subject that’s talked about openly, and there’s a stigma attached to doing so.

For anyone who has nursed a toddler or child, it’s a perfectly normal and comfortable experience, but people who do not know what it’s like are often judgmental.

Is there any benefit for the child, or is it only for the breastfeeding parent?

You may hear people suggest that extended breastfeeding is only for the benefit of the breastfeeding parent, and that once a child reaches a certain milestone (teething, eating solids, or asking for milk are commonly mentioned) it’s inappropriate to continue.

As any breastfeeding parent can attest, you can’t make a child want to nurse. Breastfeeding is not accomplished through force. An extended breastfeeding relationship is — at the core — one that must be mutual, with both baby and parent as willing participants.

Can extended breastfeeding affect your child’s emotional development?

Many critics allege that breastfeeding is harmful to a child’s development or psychological well-being. They claim it makes children needy, stunts their independence, and makes them have trouble separating from their parents.

However, there isn’t proof to support that claim. As the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) states, “There is no evidence that extended breastfeeding is harmful to mother or child.” In fact, the AAFP goes a step further and claims that nursing beyond infancy can lead to “better social adjustment” for children.

The Academy of American Pediatrics (AAP) has a similar stance, explaining that breastfeeding offers “significant health and developmental benefits for the child” and that there is “no evidence of psychologic or developmental harm from breastfeeding into the third year of life or longer.”

Nursing older babies and children comes with a different set of challenges than nursing a baby. Here are a few of the challenges breastfeeding parents encounter most, as well as how to deal with them.

How to handle the critics

If you choose to breastfeed long term, you’re going to face judgement and critique. The good news is that there is so much evidence to support the benefits of your choice. You will eventually toughen up to the critique, or at least learn to ignore it. After all, this is your choice and no one else’s.

It can also be really helpful to amass a group of friends who also nurse their little ones past infancy. You can find these like-minded parents at breastfeeding support groups, both in-person and online.

How to create boundaries with your child

As your child gets older, it’s OK if you don’t want to continue nursing them “on demand.”

It’s normal to want to set some boundaries with your child. Some toddlers still want to nurse “all the time.” If that works for you, that’s great (all children do eventually taper off on their own!). But if you need some space between feedings, that’s OK too.

Some parents only nurse at nap time and nighttime. Others only do so at other set times each day. Your child may be upset at first, but your mental health is important too, so if setting nursing boundaries is important for you to make this work, your child will adjust.

What about nighttime nursing?

Many toddlers continue to want to nurse at night. It’s very normal, though it surprises many parents. If nighttime nursing works well for you, go for it.

If it doesn’t, you can begin night weaning your child. You can substitute nighttime sessions with water, a back rub, or other soothing techniques. Some parents find that a partner has to take over for a few nights, as their child only wants to nurse if the breastfeeding parent is around.

If night weaning isn’t working, consider trying again in a few months, when your child is more ready.

When should you wean?

There’s no set period of time by which you need to wean your child. Doing so is a very personal decision that each family has to make on their own. The American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) writes that 2–7 years old is the estimated “natural weaning age for humans.”

Most nursing toddlers naturally wean sometime between 2–4 years. You can wait until that time, or try some gentle weaning techniques on your own, such as “don’t offer, don’t refuse,” slowly shortening nursing sessions, or substituting them with snuggles or another form of connection.

Extended breastfeeding has been taboo for many years, but fortunately, the tide seems to be turning. Celebrities such as Mayim Bialik, Salma Hayek, Alanis Morissette, and Alyssa Milano have all shared their experiences of breastfeeding to 12 months and beyond, helping normalize the experience.

Your decision about whether to nurse long term is one that you should feel empowered to make on your own terms and in whatever way works for you, your child, and your family.