Breastfeeding for any length of time is a challenge. But breastfeeding beyond the cultural norm presents its own set of problems that so many families stress over. The trouble is that many of those problems aren’t problems at all; they are myths that persist that color the way you perceive the actions of your breastfeeding kiddo.
So first, let’s define “extended” breastfeeding. I’ve discussed this before, but I want to address it so that we are all on the same page for the rest of this blog post.
From a biological standpoint - “extended” breastfeeding doesn’t exist. It’s all simply breastfeeding. There is no point at which your body and your child’s body should have stopped that you have “extended” past. In different cultures worldwide, breastfeeding until ages 5 or 7 is commonplace.
Recommended guidelines from leading health organizations tend to have an age attached to breastfeeding duration (generally 1 or 2 years), but they add the words “and beyond” to show that breastfeeding past that is recommended as long as it is working for everyone involved.
So, why is the phrase “extended” breastfeeding used, and what does it mean?
Over the more recent history in the western world, breastfeeding prevalence and duration have shrunk to the point that formula feeding is the most common practice of feeding a young baby (where I live, 75% of babies are formula fed by two months old).
So, breastfeeding a 12-month-old is pretty “weird” in many places in western society, and a 2 or 3-year-old is pretty much unheard of. Hence, breastfeeding a baby over a year old is generally considered “extended breastfeeding.” But, you can consider your breastfeeding “extended” when you breastfeed past the point that most people around you are breastfeeding. That might be 8 months, or it might be 3 years. This transitions us perfectly into our topic for today - extended breastfeeding “problems” that are actually myths. The problems are actually because society doesn’t see, and therefore doesn’t understand, breastfeeding older babies and toddlers. So let’s bust some myths!
Myth #1 - The older your child gets, the harder it is to wean.
This myth is so prevalent that I regularly hear from families desperate to wean “before it’s too late” - as if there is some timer inside of your child that will go offer where they are unable to stop breastfeeding - FOREVER! 😱
This fear comes from the idea that breastfeeding becomes a habit as soon as it is no longer a critical source of nutrition. There is an idea that during the “4th Trimester,” you can’t do anything wrong - hold your baby, breastfeed all day long - and don’t worry about it. But, once you venture out into “older baby land” now, you have to be careful not to start bad habits - “start with the way you mean to finish,” if you will. Here is the trouble with this line of thinking: your child’s physical, emotional, psychological, and neurological development is exploding in the first 5-7 years of life. Did you catch that? 5-7 YEARS. You read that right. This means that expecting your 8 or 12-month-old to be able to navigate life as they will at 15 months or 2 years is unrealistic. As your child matures, they have more resources and skills available to them to meet the needs that breastfeeding has met for so long. Believe me, I work with moms at EVERY stage of breastfeeding, and there is no “easy” age to wean. If you want to make changes in your breastfeeding relationship, including stopping it altogether, there are many options available to you, regardless of the age of your child or the length of your breastfeeding journey. But, doing it out of the simple fear that you need to do it soon because changes will become harder and harder to make isn’t only unnecessarily stressful but actually the exact opposite of the truth.
The truth is: Making changes in the breastfeeding relationship becomes *easier* to make over time. Not harder.
Myth #2 - Extended breastfeeding is “just” for comfort
I could easily write an entire blog post (or series!) on the incredible nature of toddler breastmilk, but I want to go in a different direction for a moment. I want to address the word “just.” Comforting your child is one of the most important things that you can do during the early years of their life. It isn’t “just” anything. A toddler’s brain forms more than 1,000,000 neural connections every second. That means that pathways are being formed in the brain at a rate they never will be again.
The way that a child is supported when upset during their toddler years is the way that they learn to support *themselves* for the rest of their life.
It’s not that a child learns that when they cry, they are "rewarded" with a hug. (As if a child can’t simply ask for a hug or offer a hug if that’s what they wanted to do…)
Comforting your upset child teaches them that when they are overwhelmed with a whirlwind of huge emotions inside, there is a pathway out. They learn they can feel big feelings, experience disappointment and pain, and trust that they will find their way out.
That is the definition of resilience.
The truth is: comforting your toddler, whether by breastfeeding, holding them, or rubbing their back, wires their brain to associate their discomfort with your presence. For the rest of their life, when they feel depressed, scared, anxious, or any other overwhelming feeling, their brain will also remind them that they are loved. That they are safe. That someone loves them.
Myth #3 - Your only options are to “wean” or to “surrender.”
I so relate to this tension. It feels as if the “wean” option is touted by your family doctor, mother-in-law, and next-door neighbor. While the “surrender” option is what you hear from anyone else who has breastfed or practiced some form of attachment/gentle parenting. The “wean” club seems reasonable - “if it’s making you miserable, if your child is too clingy, if you aren’t getting enough sleep - just stop.” Ah, but if only it were that simple. First of all, HOW do you stop when all your child has ever known is breastfeeding? How do you stop when it’s clearly something your child at least really truly wants, if not still needs? The “surrender” club has its merits too. “This too shall pass. They are only little for so long. It’s what your child needs right now.” But the more you surrender, the more you suffer. The more you “embrace” where they are, the more resentment and frustration build up inside.
This makes sense - isn’t the definition of insanity doing the same thing over and over, expecting different results?
The truth is: The space between “wean” and “surrender” is infinitely vast, and there is a pathway forward where BOTH you AND your child’s needs can be met in ways that feel amazing for both of you (without sacrificing one for the other).
I know breaking down those supposed "problems" has offered you some comfort and hope. I see it do the same with my clients and students every day. Please pass this blog post along to a friend or your partner. And, if you are looking for your starting point for changing your extended breastfeeding relationship, I got you, sweet mama.
Click here to get my free 16-page PDF “Making Changes” Guide & Cheat Sheet, where I teach you exactly how to communicate with your toddler to say “no” to any feed (if you need to or want to) while still saying “yes” to the underlying needs so that you can create the breastfeeding relationship of your dreams while feeling more bonded than ever.