Breast-feeding beyond infancy: What you need to know

Curious about breast-feeding beyond infancy? 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 continue breast-feeding your baby you might have questions about the process. Get the facts about breast-feeding beyond infancy.

Is breast-feeding beyond infancy recommended?

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

What are the benefits of breast-feeding beyond infancy?

The benefits of breast-feeding beyond infancy 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 breast-feeding beyond infancy for a mother include:

  • Reduced risk of certain illnesses. Breast-feeding beyond infancy — 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.

What role does breast milk play in an older baby's diet?

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 or your health care provider.

Will breast-feeding beyond infancy make the weaning process more difficult?

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.

How should I handle negative reactions to breast-feeding beyond infancy?

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, this 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.

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

May 18, 2018 See more In-depth