People may consider nursing beyond the time that is typical or common in a culture — often beyond 1 or 2 years — to be extended breastfeeding. It may offer some benefits to both the nursing parent and child.

However, extended breastfeeding or chestfeeding can also pose some challenges. This is particularly true in cultures that lack nursing support or where extended breastfeeding is not typical. People can face stigma and criticism for nursing past the “typical” age.

For some people, extended breastfeeding is rewarding and meaningful. It can benefit their health, mental well-being, and bond. It is also a convenient and economical form of nutrition.

Read more to learn about extended breastfeeding, the advantages and disadvantages, how to know when to stop, and tips for dealing with criticism.

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Extended breastfeeding is a cultural determination rather than a medical term. It does not have a strict definition — it refers to people who nurse for longer than is usual in their culture.

In the United States and many European countries, this typically means beyond 12 months.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends infants should exclusively consume breastmilk for the first 6 months of life. Then, they should eat complementary foods but continue to receive breastmilk until at least 1 year. The CDC notes that the World Health Organization (WHO) echoes these recommendations, suggesting introducing complementary foods at 6 months and breastfeeding for up to 2 years or longer.

There is no expected age to stop breastfeeding, and it varies from person to person. According to the CDC, data from 2018 shows about 35% of babies in the U.S were still breastfeeding at 12 months. This dropped to 14.8% at 18 months of age.

Anthropologist Katherine Dettwyler states that cultural and family factors have always influenced breastfeeding decisions, but humans have typically breastfed children until they are several years old.

From a public health perspective, breastfeeding and extended breastfeeding improve infant health and survival. However, not all people can nurse, and feeding with formula can provide adequate nutrition.

Breastfeeding is not necessary for a child to survive, but researchers have documented numerous benefits associated with extended breastfeeding. In general, the longer someone breastfeeds their child, the more benefits there are for both.

Some of these benefits include:

  • Parent’s health: A person who breastfeeds has a lower risk of breast cancer, ovarian cancer, type 2 diabetes, and high blood pressure. These benefits continue to accrue as long as they breastfeed.
  • Child’s health: Breast milk is rich in antibodies that may help children fight infections. It also changes based on the infant’s needs, drawing information from their saliva, and making a custom food that may help prevent infections and ensure optimal nutrition. Babies who breastfeed have lower rates of asthma, sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), ear infections, diarrheal illnesses, respiratory infections, and diabetes.
  • Emotional well-being: Some studies suggest that people who breastfeed have lower levels of anxiety, stress, and depression than people who use formula. Nursing can also help the baby and parent connect, fostering attachment and reducing stress. It may be easier to soothe a breastfed baby, especially when other comfort measures, such as a pacifier, are unavailable.
  • Easy soothing: Many infants and toddlers find nursing very soothing. Some nurse to sleep, while others seek nursing when upset or scared. This accessible source of comfort may help ease some parenting stress and give the child an accessible way to ease distress.
  • Convenience: Breastmilk is readily available and convenient. A parent can give a child a quick snack and ensure they have access to fluids wherever they are, without delaying food or water.
  • Nutritional supplement: Breastmilk is a nutritious food source well beyond the first year of life. As children experiment with new foods, parents may find comfort in the fact that breast milk can help supplement gaps in their diet. This is especially helpful for picky eaters.

As long as a child receives adequate complementary foods, there are no medical drawbacks to breastfeeding beyond the age of 1 year. However, people may face obstacles to nursing, especially if they do not have family or social support.

Some potential disadvantages include:

  • Cultural stigma: In most Western nations, extended breastfeeding is not a cultural “norm”. A person may face shaming and judgment, not receive adequate support from their partner or family, and feel like their friends isolate or judge them.
  • Time: Breastfeeding takes time and effort. A person’s time is valuable, and those with young children may already struggle with having enough time for sleep, work, hobbies, and self-care. Other feeding options, such as formula and bottle-feeding, can be more convenient.
  • Workplace issues: Working outside the home can make breastfeeding difficult, especially if a person works long hours. Some people may face pressure at work to quit breastfeeding, or they may have to challenge their right to pumping breaks.
  • Fertility: Breastfeeding can suppress ovulation, but the likelihood of this decreases as the baby grows older. People whose periods have not returned and who want to conceive may need to decrease breastfeeding.

People who want to follow public health guidelines should aim to exclusively breastfeed for about the first 6 months of the infant’s life. They can then begin introducing complementary foods and continue nursing at least until the end of the first year.

After this initial milestone, they should consider how well it is working for them.

Some questions to ask include:

  • Do I feel that my child and I are benefiting from breastfeeding?
  • Do I want to continue?
  • Is breastfeeding convenient or more convenient than other alternatives?
  • Is there another reason to quit?

There is no right or wrong time to stop nursing, and it is entirely a personal choice. Each person must assess how well breastfeeding works for them and their child when making a decision.

People often report experiencing judgment and shaming of their choices to breastfeed past a “normal” age. This disproportionately affects mothers, for whom “mom-shaming” can be a tool of sexism and gendered control.

Parents should know that people face criticism whether or not they nurse and regardless of how long they do so. Those who choose formula may face formula-shaming, while those who breastfeed, especially for extended periods, may also encounter stigma.

Knowing that judgment is about controlling parents rather than specific choices and understanding that judgment will come no matter what a parent does may ease the sting.

Some strategies people can try include:

  • Avoiding arguments and remaining neutral to make the criticism unrewarding.
  • Invoking a pediatrician or other expert. For example: “My pediatrician says this is the best choice for us, and you are not my doctor.”
  • Setting a clear boundary and enforcing it. For example: “If you continue to criticize me, I will leave.”

Extended breastfeeding has been the norm for most of human history. Parents can educate themselves about various options, including how best to ensure adequate, healthy breast milk production.

Nursing does not work for some people, but for others, it is a healthy and sustainable option that benefits both parent and child. If a person wants to continue breastfeeding or chestfeeding past a socially “normal” age, they should feel empowered to do so.