Extended Breast-Feeding: Will It Make My Baby Invincible?


I can't believe I'm saying this, but I'm going to keep nursing my baby after her first birthday.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends breast-feeding exclusively for the first 6 months, and I was happy to wean my first two daughters well before they were 1.

None of the other moms I knew breast-fed their infants for more than a few months, and I was relieved to have my freedom and my pre-pregnancy body back once I stopped breast-feeding.

But several things have changed since those formula-filled days.

The upsides

erica-breast-feeding erica-breast-feeding and scared the pants off of me. While we scrambled to get the vaccine, my only consolation was that if we did contract H1N1, I could provide the baby an additional immunological protection through my breast milk.

In addition, this child is more prone to ear infections than her sisters, and formula-fed children may be even more prone to ear infections. In fact, according to a 2004 article published in Pediatrics, children who are breast-feeding past their first birthday have ear infections that are a shorter duration than those not breast-feeding.

In fact, the same article cites preliminary studies which indicate that extended breast-feeding may help protect the child against lymphoma and leukemia as well. So if she's breast-feeding and eating her vegetables, she could be nearly invincible.

Plus, breast-feeding is so darn convenient. At the playground, in the car, on a hike in the woods—I never have to bring a bottle in case the baby gets peckish. She and I enjoy reconnecting while her sisters are playing around us, and we both relax as she fills her belly, and I experience the oxytocin rush that comes from breast-feeding.

Next Page: Pediatricians, OBs support the choice [ pagebreak ]

Pediatricians, OBs support the choice
There is nothing but support from the medical community for breast-feeding children older than 12 months, known as extended breast-feeding.

I was worried that my daughter's sense of independence would be stunted by this continued physical attachment to her mother. But in that same article in Pediatrics, Martin T Stein, MD, negates my fear: "Extended nursing should not be seen as a hindrance to developmental progress."

In addition, there may be benefits to my own health. According to Pamela Berens, MD, a professor of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive medicine at the University of Texas Medical School at Houston, extended breast-feeding may lower my risk of breast and ovarian cancer and maternal diabetes.

"It also appears that the risk is reduced more by longer periods of breast-feeding, so more [breast-feeding] is better for mothers" says Dr. Berens, and "a large review of studies on breast cancer published in 2002 found a reduced risk of breast cancer of 4.3% for each 12 months of breast-feeding."

The downsides: Less freedom, more weight, no more babies
There are still some sacrifices; my husband and I can't plan a trip away from the kids as long as one of them is nutritionally dependent upon me. And my husband also loses out on that sweet bottle-feeding connection with his child.

I also tend to retain 10–15 extra pounds of weight as long as I breast-feed. Kurt Wharton, MD, an ob-gyn, tells me this is normal. A woman's body will hold onto that weight in order to ensure a steady supply of the sugar, fat, water, and protein needed to create breast milk.

And the decision to continue breast-feeding probably ends my chances of having more children, as my fertility is suppressed by this extra prolactin during the waning years of my fertility, but the benefits far outweigh that potential sacrifice.

In my conversations with other mothers, everyone has only positive things to say about breast-feeding into toddlerhood.

Janna, a local mom, tells me that she never thought of nursing her 2-year-olds as "extended," but "…as nursing our girls till we outgrew our nursing relationship."

"I can't imagine having missed that time with them," she says.

And so we continue for the time being. My daughter cleaves to my chest, wrapping her fingers in my hair while she nurses, and I think, I could do this forever.