The hidden benefits of extended breastfeeding

This post was written as part of Mothering’s “Blog about breastfeeding” event in celebration of World Breastfeeding week, August 1-7. You can read more stories on mothering.com, here. And stay tuned here (on this blog!) all week for more posts about breastfeeding by yours truly.

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Though our country is slow to open its mind to extended breastfeeding, the proof is in the pudding (or science, really). Breastfeeding into toddlerhood (and beyond) provides an astounding amount of benefits to your child. It benefits their insides with stronger immune systems, improved vision and hearing, lower incidence of chronic illness (diabetes, heart disease, degenerative nervous system disorders) in both childhood and adulthood, and fewer stomach-related issues. It benefits their outsides with leaner bodies and healthier skin. It benefits them emotionally by fostering confidence and independence; and intellectually by adding points to their IQ for every extra month and year that you continue to breastfeed. Not to mention, it benefits your health (and sanity, as extended breastfeeders are known to be easier to discipline).

Yet, there’s no denying that breastfeeding isn’t without its challenges.

I talked about the (sometimes) steep learning curve of those early, newborn days here. But, here’s what I didn’t say: you aren’t exactly out of the woods once you get past the newborn hurdle. Yes, things were easier on a daily basis after I got the hang of breastfeeding. For sure. But then, I had to contend with things like milk supply issues (too much or too little), blocked milk ducts, mastitis (breast infection), eliminating some beloved food groups from my diet for the sake of my child’s health, and let’s not forget to mention….teething and months of biting.

I’ve noticed that the three most common phases for moms to stop breastfeeding happen to coincide with what were the most difficult times to breastfeed (for me): the newborn period, 6-months and 12-months. Inevitably, new phases of development for your babe mean new phases in your breastfeeding relationship.

Personally, I am so grateful that I didn’t give up during any one of those challenging times. Believe me, I wanted to in so many moments. But, in making it to the other side, I discovered that breastfeeding a toddler is quite wonderful. The health benefits are great—amazing, in fact—but it’s the less talked about benefits that happen in real time (because I can’t exactly see a picture of my future adult child’s healthy heart) that make extended breastfeeding a real privilege.

Here’s what I get to enjoy now: a sweet, loving ritual minus all the pain and anxiety. Breastfeeding my toddler is so easy and fulfilling. I can see tangible results of all the hours and days and months we have logged as a breastfeeding duo in my child’s sense of security in the world…in the mutual trust and respect we’ve created. What’s more, I am now loving and nurturing a (more) mature, responsive being. In so many ways, I can feel my child thanking me and loving me back while she nurses. We have our own language of call-and-response hums and eye blinks (really) that we use while we nurse. We hold hands, we play with each other’s hair, we smile and laugh. Our relationship is magical and unique. And you see, that’s just it. It’s those benefits that you can’t find in a book or on someone else’s list that make extended breastfeeding worth the effort.

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If you missed my previous post, Breastfeeding: A true story, you can read it here.

Up next: 10 things that surprised me about breastfeeding

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