The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) both recommend that babies breastfeed exclusively for the first six months and continue breastfeeding—in addition to eating other foods—for at least the first year and “as long as is mutually desired” by both the mother and the child. The World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF encourage mothers to breastfeed for two years “and beyond.”
Experts agree that breastfeeding has health benefits for children beyond their first birthday, and child-led weaning (as opposed to mother-led weaning) is a key element of attachment parenting.
While the practice of breastfeeding beyond the first year isn’t yet the norm in the U.S. (estimates suggest that just over one-third of children are still breastfeeding at 12 months of age), a look around the world shows us that it is more common than many U.S. families realize. The United Nations Children’s Fund estimates that globally about two-thirds of infants are still breastfeeding at 2 years of age.
Little data are available for extended breastfeeding rates in the U.S. One small study of American women who breastfed more than a year found that the average weaning age was between 2 1/2 and 3 years, with some children breastfeeding more than 7 years.
The health benefits of breastfeeding beyond the first year are indisputable. While immunological factors in breast milk continue to help children fight infection, long-term breastfeeding lowers the risk of chronic diseases such as childhood obesity and Type 2 diabetes.
The benefits for mothers are just as impressive. For example, the longer a mother breastfeeds, the more she reduces her risk for breast cancer. A large review of 47 studies from 30 countries found that the risk of breast cancer declines 4.3 percentage points for every 12 months of breastfeeding.
When should a mother decide to begin the weaning process with her child? New mothers often hear “watch your baby, not the clock” to determine when a feeding is over. The same goes for weaning. You should watch your baby, not the calendar, as you (and your baby) decide when is the right time to wean. Remember that breastfeeding is a “supply and demand” proposition so your breasts will continue to make milk as long as there is a need for it. And the benefits of breastfeeding continue for both you and your baby as long as you are willing and able to continue breastfeeding.