Jun 1, 2012 Post By: Maria-Paula Carrillo, M.S.

Extended Breastfeeding: Is It Healthy?
Clinical dietician at Children's Health Dallas discusses the pros and cons of extended breastfeeding.

Maria-Paula Carrillo is a clinical dietitian at Children's and mother at home. She has done extensive research on breastfeeding for both of her roles. We asked her to share her knowledge about breastfeeding, particularly in regard to whether it's healthy or not to breastfeed a child past the age of 1. This is her response.

Extended breastfeeding has been in the news a lot lately, especially after this controversial Time cover.

We usually hear about all the benefits of breastmilk during the first year of life but very seldom about what happens beyond that period.

Many women continue this practice for many reasons. You would be surprised to know that the worldwide weaning age is a little over 4 years of age.

Breastmilk after the first year of life can continue to provide some nutrients to a child/toddler. It is a good source of energy, protein, fat and calcium, as well as some vitamins. Yet, it’s also known that it can’t function as the sole source of nutrition after 6 months of age.

The benefits of breastmilk continue for an infant or child for as long as they consume it. These benefits seem to concentrate in human milk when production decreases, which allows the child to benefit despite a lower dose.

There have been studies showing that toddlers who breastfeed between 16-30 months of age have less illnesses. If they do get sick, the episodes seem to last for a shorter period of time. In addition, when sick, toddlers tend to have decreased appetite for solids but will continue to nurse, which helps at preventing dehydration, as well as providing some nutrition during their sickness.  It has also been suggested that toddlers who nurse develop fewer allergies (although other studies showed no benefits) as well as less cases of asthma.

Breastmilk contains immunologic factors that help protect the infant. Some believe that these may even increase during the second year of life.  On the other hand, it has been suggested that prolonged breastfeeding could possibly cause problems related to heart disease in adulthood.

This has been speculated as some studies have shown that the fat content of breastmilk increases the longer a mother continues to breastfeed. At the same time, many studies relate breastfeeding to lower blood pressure and a decrease in cardiovascular disease later in life.

Mothers can also benefit from “extended breastfeeding”.  Studies have shown a direct correlation between the number of years a woman spends breastfeeding and the increased protection from breast cancer. Also, breastfeeding past one year of age reduces the chances of developing ovarian cancer.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that breastfeeding should continue for at least 12 months of age and thereafter for as long as the mother and child mutually desire. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that infants should be exclusively breastfed for the first six months of life. Afterwards, they should receive complementary foods that are nutritionally adequate (providing sufficient calories, protein as well as micronutrients needed for proper growth) and safe while continuing to breastfeed for up to 2 years or more.

So, what should mothers do?  They should breastfeed their infants until they are both comfortable and willing to do so.  The controversy will continue and more research is on the horizon to find the advantages and/or consequences of feeding your child in this way.