On our beautiful planet Alentejo, breastfeeding a toddler rarely raises any eyebrows around… Nevertheless, for many people breastfeeding a 2 year old child (not to mention 4 years old) can seem totally incongruous.

“Extended breastfeeding” is the common term for breastfeeding that lasts for more than 2 years. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends at least 2 years of breastfeeding (including 6 months of exclusive breastfeeding) to promote optimal health for the child (like resistance against allergens, physical and mental growth, etc.).

Here is an interview with my friend Pauline, midwife in Brussels and mother of two girls, about breastfeeding a toddler.

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In Europe, for most mothers it is rare to breastfeed beyond 6 months. Some even believe that it is “useless”. What are the benefits of breastfeeding for the mother and her child after some months ?

Pauline, midwife :

Extended breastfeeding has many benefits, as long as the toddler and his mom take pleasure in it, that they both enjoy this complicity. The feeding pause is a special moment for the couple “mom ~ child”. A precious sharing, few words, some gazing, a calm oasis in the midst of everyday life.

Nutritional benefits are known and recognized. There is no need to quote the qualities of breast milk. These benefits are valid regardless the duration of the breastdeefing, wether your child is 3 months or 3 years.

In terms of immunity, breast milk containing antibodies that help the child to fight against common diseases. This seems even more important when children start to go to collective care like nursery or kindergarden.

Allergies, including hay fever, are less common and severe for children who have been breastfed over 6 months.

From the mother’s point of view, extended breastfeeding also have positive effects on health: a lower incidence of diabetes, breast cancer, a better bone density at menopause, … These benefits increases considerably when breastfeeding is long and repeated in a woman’s life.

On a pragmatic level, breastfeeding is easy! Always at a good temperature, in fair quantity, open on Sunday and at night, dishes-free and free from any conservation problem!

Generally around at the age of 6 months, the child begins a phase of “awakening to flavors and textures”. The quantities of food are of little importance and milk remains essential because it constitutes the basis of the diet during at least the entire first year. When this phase starts, it is recommended to give the breast first and then to offer food.

Note that extended breastfeeding presented as a model can bring guilt for women who makes another choice. Every woman has her convictions, her story, her baggage, her needs that matters in the choice they make. And this choice must be respected.

The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends to breastfeed the child at least its 2 first years. Do you witness any encouragement from professional dealing with future, and new parents to convey the culture of breastfeeding?

This WHO recommendation is not widely disseminated. Breastfeeding is promoted, but beyond a few months, it is socially accepted that a mother should wean her child. Some professionals even advise mothers to “bottle-feed” as soon as the weight of the baby is getting a bit low or when the baby does not sleep all night long at the age of 3 months…!

Since a few years, a “baby-friendly hospital” initiative ensures that all professionals involved with young parents receive a proper training on breastfeeding and baby’s rhythms (in the hospital that join this label). This provides a real support for mothers who wish to breastfeed. Nevertheless, there is no special emphasis on extended breastfeeding.

If you are having difficulty with your child’s breastfeeding and feeding, remember that you can always call a midwife or lactation consultant.

What are the differences between breastfeeding a baby and a toddler ?

Toddlers are breastfed differently than babies, mostly because their needs are not the same, especially in terms of hydration and nutrition.

The “mummy ~ toddler” couple will often have favorite moments for a feed: for some it will be when waking up in the morning, for others it will be for the nap time. The pace and rythm of breastfeeding depends on each duo: for some feedings will still be frequent, for others it will be “set” to once a day, or for others it will be quite irregular. It is even possible that the toddler is not breastfed every day and that the mother still has milk for a few feedings a week.

Also, with a toddler it is easy to have a dialogue about everyone’s needs. A toddler who is very eager to suck will be able to wait until his mother is available. If she tells him or her that she wants to finish something before feeding, or if she does not want to breastfeed in public, she can explain to her child that he/she will be fed when back home. The wish can also come from the mother, and if she feels the need an intimate moment with her child, she can also voice it.

What are the common obstacles to extendend breastfeeding of a toddler?

Breastfeeding in the long term is not always easy.

In some cases, there is a disagreement in the couple. In these cases, dialogue is essential. Listen sincerely to your partner’s fears and reassure him, suggest to read testimonials (especially from other fathers if your partner is a man), to meet other families or even a professional who will be able to answer his questions (doulas, midwives…).

The reaction of the relatives and of society is also a complaint of some mothers. They feel that they have to justify their choices or even to hide sometimes… A little tip in these cases is to use humor. “Of course, I intend to breastfeed until he is 18, by will or by force! (laughter). In these moments, you can think of all those toddlers who are breastfed at the same time as yours, no you are not an exception!

When the mother is not in constant contact with her child, it is sometimes necessary to use the pump and all the system of conservation and organisation that go with it. This may seem compelling or impossible for some. However, be aware that once the routine is in place, things are usually simpler. There are milk pumps of all kinds and you can find the one that suits you best.

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For more info on breastfeeding you can check :

  • The monthly meeting of Amamenta (the breastfeeding organisation active in Portugal) in Milfontes, called Milkfontes.
  • La Leche League International website

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