The updated advice hopefully means more moms and babies will get the support they need to breastfeed past 12 months.
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When my first baby was a newborn, I received some solid advice from an unexpected source. I was at a local garage sale when I struck up a conversation with a mother of several children.
She asked me if I was breastfeeding, and when I said I was, she told me, “No one tells you this, but it’s easier to nurse a toddler than a baby. It’s just a quick up and down a few times a day. It’s not this all-day marathon like nursing a newborn is.”
She encouraged me to stick out breastfeeding for the long haul: “There’s a lot of benefits to nursing a toddler, too. Definitely try to nurse past age one if you can.”
I said a quick goodbye, feeling a little confused and overwhelmed at the onslaught of information. “Look, lady, I can hardly see ahead to next week, much less a year from now!” I thought. I was deep in the mental fog of the newborn phase.
But a year later, I remembered her advice. By then, I had read up on it and found out there really are a lot of benefits to nursing past age one.
Nursing your one-year-old
It turns out that breastfeeding past your baby’s first birthday benefits you almost as much as it does your baby. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) says, “Long-term breastfeeding is associated with protections against diabetes, high blood pressure, and cancers of the breast and ovaries.”
My favorite benefit (one that’s not often mentioned) is how helpful breastfeeding can be when your toddler inevitably catches a cold or stomach bug. Many times, I’ve nursed a feverish one-year-old who couldn’t keep down anything but breastmilk. It’s enormously reassuring to know that breastfeeding is an option when your little one is sick, especially since your milk helps them to heal.
I’ve had a lot of experience with sick toddlers over the years! My first baby is the oldest of four, and I nursed each of my older three children until they were around two years old. I’m still nursing my youngest, who recently turned one.
I didn’t realize until recently that I’m in the minority in the U.S. for breastfeeding this long: Less than a third of infants here are still breastfeeding at one year old.
Anecdotally, friends of mine have shared that their pediatricians told them there was “no need” or “no benefit” to continue breastfeeding after their babies’ first birthdays. But the truth is that there are real benefits to breastfeeding well past 12 months.
So I was really glad to see the AAP update their guidance on breastfeeding for the first time in a decade:
In a new policy statement, the organization continues to recommend exclusive breastfeeding for up to 6 months of age (unchanged from their 2012 guidelines), but newly supports continuing to breastfeed for two years or more, “as mutually desired by mother and child.” On an empathetic note, AAP also recognizes that more social and workplace support is needed to make that happen—and that pediatricians can play a key role in advocating for better policies for breastfeeding parents.
It’s great news to see the AAP looking for ways to support mothers who want to keep breastfeeding. I’m especially glad they’re encouraging pediatricians to support and encourage extended breastfeeding: The advice of a pediatrician can play such a big role in a mother’s decision making!
Positive support for nursing past 12 months
I had the chance to talk about the changes with my friend Natalie, who is an IBCLC (International Board Certified Lactation Consultant). She pointed out that the AAP policy is now consistent with recommendations in most of the world.
“The AAP’s updated policy statement aligns their breastfeeding recommendations with those the World Health Organization has promoted for years,” she said.
She’s also hopeful that this change will be a positive one for many families. “Both babies and parents will benefit from this update,” she said.
Since breastfeeding beyond the first year is not the norm in our country, many families experience barriers to meeting their goals both in the workplace and in their personal lives. Hopefully this change in the AAP’s policy will help to reduce some of those barriers.
Certainly an important part of the AAP’s statement was urging the removal of barriers to extended breastfeeding. “The AAP views breastfeeding as a public health imperative and also as an equity issue,” said Lawrence Noble, MD, FAAP, FABM, IBCLC, co-author of the policy statement and technical report.
Hopefully many more moms and babies will get the support they need to breastfeed past 12 months. And I’ll echo the advice of that mom from eight years ago, adding my encouragement to that of so many. While I wouldn’t say that nursing a toddler is “easy,” exactly, I will happily say that I’ve found it to be so, so worth it.