Breastfeeding beyond a baby’s first birthday, often referred to as extended breastfeeding, offers significant health, nutrition, and social-emotional benefits for your child. Breastfeeding a toddler or young child can be flexible and fun -- and it can help both you and your child through transitions and developmental leaps.
As an IBCLC and a mom who’s currently breastfeeding her toddler, here are some important things to know about extended breastfeeding, whether you’re just beginning your breastfeeding journey or are well into nursing or pumping for your toddler or young child. Click the button below to download and print a handy infographic, and read on for detailed suggestions:
1. You’re not alone.
While you may not see a toddler or young child breastfeeding in public every day, extended breastfeeding is popular in many communities around the world, including right here in the United States. The benefits of breastfeeding never end, so the American Academy of Pediatrics and World Health Organization advocate for continuing breastfeeding for as long as desired (the AAP recommends breastfeeding for at least one year, while the WHO recommends at least two years).
2. Breast milk is constantly changing to meet your child’s needs.
Throughout your breastfeeding journey, your breast milk changes to meet the growth and development needs of your child. Breast milk has fluctuating amounts of nutritive and immunoprotective factors that, in conjunction with solid food, help your child thrive. Components like fat, protein, calcium, magnesium, lactoferrin, secretory immunoglobulin A, and lysozymes help aid in the growth, development, and health of your toddler.
Extended breastfeeding can be especially helpful if your child is ill, injured, or a picky eater. My toddler wasn’t feeling well recently, and she wouldn’t eat any table food. I was incredibly thankful that she was still nursing so she could continue getting nutrients until she was ready to eat solids again.
3. Extended breastfeeding positively impacts development.
In addition to nutritional benefits, breastfeeding has been shown to improve psychosocial development, decrease negative mental health outcomes, and improve motor development. Studies have even shown a positive correlation between duration of breastfeeding and cognitive ability, such as reading comprehension and mathematical aptitude.
4. Life transitions can affect feeding routines.
Major transitions like moving, starting daycare or preschool, adding a new sibling, and a parent being deployed can affect feeding routines. With these changes, your child may want to nurse more frequently for comfort. Alternatively, they may feed less frequently if the change makes them busier or more distracted. Toddlers may also nurse more or less frequently when they’re teething, hitting developmental milestones, or going through growth spurts. These feeding changes can throw you for a loop at first, but they’re usually temporary.
5. You don’t need to stick to a nursing schedule.
Gone are the days of round-the-clock nursing and planning your day around feedings. Most toddlers and young children nurse only a few times a day (e.g., upon waking and at bedtime), and some will even go a couple of days without asking to nurse. Feel free to go with the flow and stay attuned to your child’s feeding cues.
6. Toddler breastfeeding sessions can be brief.
Nursing sessions may only last a few minutes, helping to soothe falls, provide a quick snack when hunger strikes, calm your child for naps or bedtime, or even re-energize them if they’re fussy. When a toddler is melting down in public, a quick nursing session can help them regain control.
7. Breastfeeding continues to be a source of comfort.
Nursing sessions can be a time for your toddler to relax, unwind, and reconnect with you. They can provide a much-needed break for your child on busy days, during high-energy gatherings, and when they’re hitting developmental milestones. These feedings can also be relaxing for you. Take in your child’s sleepy gaze, lay your head back, or even nurse in a side-lying position in a safe sleep space so you can relax.
8. Toddlers can be adamant about nursing.
These days, my toddler crawls down from my lap giving the impression that she’s done nursing. However, as soon as my breast is out of sight, she begins shouting and lifts my shirt up trying to find the magic milk machines. In this type of situation, you can continue nursing or you can use it as an opportunity to teach your child about boundaries, gently reminding them they chose to end the feeding.
9. Toddlers like to get creative with feeding positions.
It’s no secret that toddlers think any adult is a human jungle gym. Your once peaceful nursing sessions can turn into training sessions for American Ninja Warrior Junior. Don’t be surprised if your toddler wants to nurse while standing, upside down, or playing with a toy. If needed, gently refocus your little one, take a break from your nursing session so they can get the wiggles out, or go with the flow and delight in your toddler’s imagination and energy.
10. Extended breastfeeding can be an opportunity for tandem feeding.
Adding another baby to your family doesn’t mean you have to end your nursing relationship with your toddler. Instead, it can provide an opportunity for tandem feeding. Tandem feeding looks different for every family. Some moms nurse both children at the same time, some nurse them at separate times, some nurse them one after another (the newborn nurses first to ensure they get enough before big brother or sister steps in).
Extended breastfeeding provides a new set of experiences to enjoy and puzzles to solve -- and the benefits are endless! Your liquid gold provides not only nourishment to your toddler, but also comfort, connection, immunological factors, and developmental benefits. What is your favorite part about nursing your toddler? Please comment below!
- Lawrence RA. Supporting Breastfeeding/Early Childhood Social and Emotional Development. In: Tremblay RE, Boivin M, Peters RDeV, eds. Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development [online].
- Perrin, M. T., Fogleman, A., & Allen, J. C. (2013). The Nutritive and Immunoprotective Quality of Human Milk beyond 1 Year Postpartum: Are Lactation-Duration-Based Donor Exclusions Justified? Journal of Human Lactation, 29(3), 341–349.