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The Case For Breastfeeding Toddlers

Extended nursing

Nature Knows Best. Mothers in traditional societies breastfeed their children well into their toddler years, and there is a good reason for it. The World Health Organization suggests exclusive breastfeeding for 6 months with continued breastfeeding for up to 2 years and beyond.  But, in the U.S., breastfeeding a baby past their first birthday is called extended breastfeeding, and it is not culturally accepted. New studies are proving that mothers who let their child decide when to quit nursing are helping their babies receive optimal mental and physical health.

Dr. Katy Dettwyler, anthropologist and breastfeeding advocate, studied 64 traditional societies and found that their median age for weaning was 2.8 years.  Her research shows that many tribal communities wean between three and four years of age and often much older. Such communities practice child-led weaning or let the child decide when they no longer need the breast. Child-led weaning is becoming more popular in the US, but women who practice “extended” breastfeeding often hide it from others to spare themselves ridicule.

The 2-4 year age range for natural weaning is fascinating in conjunction with new scientific studies that show that the brain and the gut continue to develop well into the third year of life and breastfeeding during this time is crucial for brain and gut development. Studies show that the gut-brain development within the first few years of life reflects the health of a person throughout adulthood.

Filled with healthy fats, vitamins, and minerals, breast milk is the perfect food to build the cellular components of the gut and brain and to provide fuel for their optimal functioning.  But, there is much more to breast milk that has been overlooked until now. The no-longer-secret ingredient necessary for gut and brain development-- the reason that extended breastfeeding is so important is-- MICROBES! 

Microbes are always competing with each other for food and space. The food a person eats feeds the microbes within their body, and different strains of microbes feed upon different things. In addition to containing more than 700 types of microbes, breast milk also contains simple sugars that feed specific kinds of beneficial, gut-seeding microbes. 

In a recent experiment, Vicky Greene, a biosciences student at South Devon College, did an experiment where breast milk samples from mothers with babies ages 15 months and 3 years were cultured with bacteria M. Luteus. In all 9 samples, the bacteria did not grow near the breast milk because the breast milk fought off the colonization of the bacteria. This experiment showed that not only is breast milk a powerful antibiotic but that the antimicrobial properties of breast milk continue into the toddler years when the gut microbiome is still in critical formation. 

Breast milk has a very high concentration of white blood cells, the immune system's soldiers in the battle against pathogens. The composition of breast milk changes depending on what the mother's nipple perceives that the child needs after contact with the child's saliva. This customizable feature of breast milk is apparent in premature babies and toddlers alike.  

Science has only recently been able to see how the gut and brain influence each other, but it is known that there is a causal relationship between breastfeeding and mental health and cognitive development. Scientists are theorizing that the seeding of the gut microbiome may be the most important factor in the gut-brain axis development.  Scientists studying the gut's affects on autism are giving additional weight to the case for  "extended" breastfeeding. 

Many women hate nursing toddlers, but people accuse women of doing so for selfish reasons.  Toddlers fuss, they have teeth, and they become demanding, and frankly, women are sick and tired of having their nipples stretched, scratched, bitten, and twiddled. Many moms are ready to wean way before their child is ready, but they put their child's needs before their own.

A breastfeeding mom is a mom who sacrifices. She sacrifices her body, her time, her social life, and her feelings. She suffers persecution for being a nurturing mother.

There is no need to call breastfeeding past the age of 1 "extended." It is not an excess, and it is arguably the best thing a mother can do for the health of her child. Breast milk has properties so remarkably complex that it can in no way be mimicked. It is hard and frustrating to nurse a toddler, and mothers who breastfeed should be supported and not ridiculed.

Note: The author acknowledges that there are additional benefits to nursing a child until they are ready to wean that are not covered in this post.


  1. Currently experiencing toddler feeding (hadn’t planned to but it’s actually easier to keep going than stop) and the range of responses from tolerant to disapproving. Majority are influenced by old beliefs and lack of knowledge- I’m interested and I didn’t even know all benefits, thanks for information! Adding that to my prepared responses!?

  2. I breast fed till my son was 5. He did not nurse for nutrition past 3 I’d say and from 3 and up it was merely a couple of minutes first thing in the morning and sometimes last thing at night.
    I got negative comments but my son is secure and well adjusted and I got divorced when he was 5 and I can only say that the extra closeness and comfort can only have helped at the time.
    He is now married and happy.

  3. Most babies do not have a gag reflex that prevents them eating normal food until 12 months, lots of babies never touch purée in their lives. Poor research has let down this otherwise interesting article. And- how does a breastfeeding Mum have to sacrifice her social life?!

  4. I’m sorry, but breastfeeding your kid when they are old enough to shave is not only culturally inappropriate, it’s just plain sick. Do what you want with your kid–if you want them to be permanently tethered to you, by all means, keep breastfeeding them until they’re 30 and married. My kid was off the breast by his first birthday. And, between graduating at the top of his class in high school and being engaged to a wonderful woman who herself is quite successful, I’d say he did okay.

  5. My son is 18 months old and I’m still breastfeeding. Our original plan was (maybe still is) to let him self wean but we’re expecting our second baby in 6 months. Our midwife recommended weaning before new baby arrives bc our son will likely regress to wanting to nurse constantly or at least as often as new baby nurses. I don’t want to stop and the few attempts we’ve made are pretty miserable but I also can’t imagine taking care of a newborn while our toddler insists on nursing constantly. Does anyone have experience or insight?? Thanks!!

    • To never expected to but found myself tandem nursing. It was no big deal. I believe it helped my middle child remain firmly connected to me and know that the baby doesn’t impact my love for her. I would allow her to nurse after the baby, which was an adjustment, but she understood fairly quickly. The greatest benefit was the toddler who could help with any clogged duct issues in a way a newborn never could. Feel free to reach out to me at http://www.abetterbirth.net if you want to chat more.

    • I have experience with tandem nursing and have had a love/ hate relationship with it. Overall, it has been worth it though. It made the transition from 1 to 2 kiddos so much easier and allowed me to rest after baby was born instead of trying to keep #1 occupied and active while I nursed or rested with #2. There are a couple of books that were really helpful: Mothering Your Nursing Toddler and Adventures in Tandem Nursing.
      Positioning can take a little while to figure out, but pillows can help. One of the great things about having an older nursling is that they can understand limits; they may not be happy about them, but they can understand. Time limits with my older have helped when I’m feeling tapped out, but I can still see a deep need for mama milk. When #1 asks about why the baby gets to nurse more, we have talked about how the baby only gets mama milk, but bigger kids can have food. It has been such a wonderful experience to have both of my kiddos share a bond over nursing.
      Good luck in doing what is best for your family!

  6. I totally agree. I know most mothers would breastfeed longer if: 1) our culture would accept it; 2) if they did not have to go back to work; 3) if they were healthy enough to not have to take medication daily; 4) if they had a strong, loving, sacrificial conviction to put their child before their own needs or wants. But the main thing, I think, is cultural. If everyone is doing it & it is accepted, then most mothers would do it too.

  7. I loved breastfeeding my son. Truly, around 14 months, I became averted to it and became very sick when he would nurse. I wasn’t anticipating weaning but it made the most sense for our family and my son never asked for it after I stopped offering. Just wanted to offer another voice. Its great to BF as long as possible. But there are many reasons that it ends before toddlerhood that are also true and right for some.

  8. When my daugter was born in 1982, I decided to let her nurse until she was ready to wean herself, which she did just before her 3rd birthday. As an Anthropology major, I figured women through the ages were a lot wiser about nursing than Just me!

  9. I’m still breastfeeding my 2 years old toddler. Sometimes I feel discomfort when nursing my toddler, feel bored and also tired. But my toddler seeks comfort to me and I don’t know when to stop breastfeeding him. My toddler likes to keep sucking my nipple and holding my other nipple, sometimes it annoys me 🙁

  10. Nursing my only child was the BEST decision I EVER made. Family support is the number one support. My husband was very supportive 99% of the time, I think he wanted some of that bonding time. lol I nurse my Princess until she was almost 5 YEARS old. That’s is right 5 years old!!! I did not care what anyone thought because this was our bonding time. Now understand, I did not go out to the public and made and issue of it, this was our time. I decided to stop because it was now feeling weird to me, I guess that was my weaning sign. If I let her she would prob nurse till high school. lol so For all you nursing moms out there……keep on nursing until YOU and your child decide to stop.

  11. Love this ❤️ I’m still breastfeeding my 20 month old (a lot haha) and I am getting many negative comments now, reading this article was the little boost I needed to continue with my instinct to do child-led weaning.

  12. Hi.
    In my experience it’s a different journey when you are breastfeeding a toddler. It can be challenging, and when this is highlighted it sometimes lacks support as the benefits of breastfeeding a toddler are far from mainstream and seen as alternative and/or solely beneficial for the mother. Breastfeeding in my experience has been totally acceptable until a ‘child can ask for it’, though I would have shared this view prior to having a child due to social norms and accepted values, I am happy to say that I no longer share these views and fully support extended breastfeeding after seeing the overwhelming benefits. It is refreshing to read this referenced article and also not to read misogynistic comments.
    Suggestions on further research:
    Benefits of Tandem Feeding
    Feeding when Pregnant
    Could adequate knowledge of social and physical obstacles to breastfeeding improve breastfeeding statics (including honest accounts of how difficult and demanding it can be balanced with benefits to mother and child)

  13. I am still nursing baby #4 who just turned 4 yrs at the beginning of April. I thought we would wean at that point, but it doesn’t look like we are! Now after reading your article, I really don’t want to. She has been my healthiest child by far as well, especially when it comes to colds and flu. I don’t think she had but a sniffle this past winter. After having multiple children I have gained so much knowledge and realize that nursing my toddler is our choice and no on else’s. So, we shall see how long we go! Thanks for the article!

  14. Still feeding my daughter at three
    Planned to wean at her pace and as she gets busier and more active she feeds way less.
    The closeness between us is amazing and it soothes her super fast if she hurts herself.
    I feel very lucky to have been able to experience this with her

  15. You can get pregnant while breastfeeding. The chances of conception are higher as baby gets older and drinks less milk. Timing varies, but a good indication that you are fertile again is the restarting of your menstrual cycle. Doctors suggest contraception to nursing women because nursing alone does not ensure you are not able to get pregnant. Women tandem nurse, or nurse more than one child at once. It is possible to not only get pregnant while nursing, but to maintain the nursing relationship during pregnancy and to be able to nurse more than one child at a time.