I have become fairly accustomed to seeing women breastfeeding their babies in public. I never really noticed it before my sister was pregnant. She was given an assortment of breastfeeding accessories at her baby shower. Breastfeeding accessories were also not something that had ever really crossed my mind, either. I couldn’t understand how breastfeeding a baby would require gear, but as my sister unwrapped a pile of wraps, covers, guards, pads, and creams, I started to realize there was much more to the idea of feeding a baby than I ever imagined.

After that, I started noticing women breastfeeding all around me. They were on buses, in restaurants, even walking through grocery stores with their babies tucked in slings, nursing as their mothers browsed through the produce section. I was amazed at how skilled some of them seemed at going about their daily lives while their little one was suckling away, so I wasn’t surprised last week when I caught sight of a young mother sitting crossed-legged in the park with a blanket draped concealing one arm and her other holding a book. A moment later, though, I noticed something I hadn’t seen before. There was a pair of chubby little legs sticking out from under the blanket. They looked much too big to belong to the baby that I assumed was in the mother’s lap. When the blanket came away I saw that the little one was, in fact, a girl of about three years.

This got me thinking about the concept of extended breastfeeding and whether it should have surprised me at all to see a mother nursing her toddler. Every mother who goes through prenatal care is told that breast milk is what is best for her baby and that she should exclusively breastfeed for the first six months at least. Mothers are encouraged to breastfeed for “at least” the first year, but what does “at least” mean? Are there any benefits to breastfeeding beyond that first year, and is it even normal?

The truth is, the idea of extended breastfeeding is not at all strange. In other cultures it is not at all unusual for a child to be nursed until he is four or even longer. Research has shown there are many potential benefits to extended breastfeeding, both for the baby and the mother.  Children who have been breastfed beyond the first year are shown to have overall better health, are more resistant to infection and allergies, and show greater independence and emotional stability. Mothers who breastfeed longer than a year have lower risk of such diseases as breast and ovarian cancer, get sick less often, and report a closer relationship with their children. As surprising and disturbing as a nursing three year old might seem in our American society, it does appear that studies support it.  However, there are always other factors to consider.  For instance, a mother who breast feeds her child for three years probably has a very different way of raising him altogether, which could also account for the statistics.

Source: Your Guide to Breastfeeding. The National Women's Health Information Center.

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