Curious about extended breast-feeding? Know the benefits, the role breast milk plays in an older baby's diet and how to handle others' opinions on the topic. By Mayo Clinic Staff

You've breast-fed your baby for a year. Congratulations!

If you plan to breast-feed your baby beyond age 1 — also known as extended breast-feeding — you might have questions about the process. Get the facts about extended breast-feeding.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends exclusive breast-feeding for the first six months after birth — and breast-feeding in combination with solids foods until at least age 1. Extended breast-feeding is recommended as long as you and your baby wish to continue.

The benefits of extended breast-feeding for a baby include:

  • Balanced nutrition. Breast milk is considered the gold standard for infant nutrition. As your baby gets older, the composition of your breast milk will continue to change to meet his or her nutritional needs. There's no known age at which breast milk is considered to become nutritionally insignificant for a child.
  • Boosted immunity. As long as you breast-feed, the cells, hormones and antibodies in your breast milk will continue to bolster your baby's immune system.
  • Improved health. Research suggests that the longer breast-feeding continues and the more breast milk a baby drinks, the better his or her health might be.

The benefits of extended breast-feeding for a mother include:

  • Reduced risk of certain illnesses. Extended breast-feeding — as well as breast-feeding for 12 months or more cumulatively in life — has been shown to reduce the risk of breast cancer, ovarian cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes.
  • Improved health. Research suggests that the longer breast-feeding continues and the more breast milk a baby drinks, the better a mother's health might be.

It depends on how much breast milk your baby is drinking.

After age 1, a baby might continue regularly drinking a moderate amount of breast milk. As a result, breast milk will continue to be a major source of nutrients for him or her. Other babies, however, might use solid foods to meet their nutritional needs and only want small amounts of breast milk.

If you have questions about your baby's diet or the role breast milk might play in it as he or she grows, talk to your baby's doctor.

Not necessarily.

It's often easiest to begin weaning when your baby initiates the process — which might be sooner or later than you expect.

Weaning often begins naturally at about age 6 months, when solid foods are typically introduced. Some babies begin to gradually transition from breast milk and seek other forms of nutrition and comfort closer to age 1. Others might not initiate weaning until their toddler years, when they become less willing to sit still during breast-feeding.

Worldwide, babies are weaned on average between ages 2 and 4. In some cultures, breast-feeding continues until children are age 6 or 7. In other parts of the world, however, extended breast-feeding is less common and can sometimes provoke uninformed, negative reactions.

How long you breast-feed is up to you and your baby. If loved ones — and even strangers — share their opinions about when to wean, remind them that the decision is yours. Try not to worry about what other people think. Instead, trust your instincts.

Extended breast-feeding can be an intimate way to continue nurturing your baby. If you're considering extended breast-feeding, think about what's best for both you and your baby — and enjoy this special time together.

Sep. 20, 2012