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Whether nursing has been an enjoyable journey for you or a straight up struggle, you’re nearing the one year mark and wondering if there’s genuine benefit in continuing. Everyone, and we mean everyone, has an opinion about how you feed your baby, including how long you decide to breastfeed.
Breastfeeding acceptance and normalization is different in every culture, and as such, some cultures are prone to nursing well past the one year mark. In America, the normalization of breastfeeding has been sluggish, such that only about 22% of American mothers breastfed their children in the early 1970’s. More than two thirds of U.S. moms now breastfeed, but it’s been a slow climb since the 1970’s and we’ve fought hard for the new normal.
Feeding your baby is a journey, and it’s likely not going exactly as you expected it would before your baby arrived. Every feeding journey is as different as every baby, so your decision about breastfeeding past the 12 month mark is your own. However, if you’re curious about potential benefits, here’s what our team of medical professionals had to say.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (“AAP”) recommends exclusive human milk for the first six months of a baby’s life. They then recommend complementary breastfeeding or formula (alongside solid food introduction) for up to 12 months, and after one year “as mutually desired by mother and infant.”
It is also acceptable to begin your newborn with formula, or a combination of both formula and breastmilk, however formula and/or breastmilk should still be the only source of nutrition for your baby for the first six months of her life.
The AAP doesn’t have an upper limit to restrict breastfeeding past a certain age, but the World Health Organization mentions allowing a child to naturally wean between the ages of 2-7. This does not mean you must stop breastfeeding between these years, but generally, this is when your child will naturally wean, or when your supply will dwindle such that you are unable to continue feeding.
Our medical experts recommend a feeding flow that is best for the baby and the parents. Complementary foods and water can be safely introduced to your baby at the age of six months. “Your baby can continue to enjoy human milk as long as it is mutually desired by parent and baby,” our experts advise.
Mutually desired means both baby and mother want to continue nursing. If your baby has begun to wean, let her do so naturally. Likewise if you no longer wish to continue nursing, you do not have to. Your baby will continue to thrive on formula, solids, and/or cow’s milk.
The AAP does recommend you wait to introduce cow’s milk until 12 months old. Your baby isn’t ready to digest the proteins in cow’s milk prior to that. Additionally, if your baby has a bovine dairy allergy, you will want to speak to your baby’s pediatrician about selecting an alternative milk (such as almond or soy) instead of cow’s milk.
If you decide to continue breastfeeding past 12 months of age, here’s what to expect.
Benefits of Breastfeeding and Formula Feeding Beyond the First Year
The journey of breastfeeding can be an experience you aren’t quite ready to give up. If you and your baby are happily nursing when she’s 12 months of age, there’s no reason you have to quit. There are some benefits to nursing past one year of life.
Some benefits of continued breastfeeding are:
- Nutrient changes. As your baby grows, the nutrients in your breastmilk change to meet her needs. Just as you produced colostrum (a fluid rich in nutrients a newborn must have) before you produced milk, your milk will change to meet the developmental needs of your baby. The milk you produced when she was four months old is vastly different from the milk you produce when she is a year old.
- Immunity benefits. Breastfeeding is a great way to increase your child’s immunity. Breastmilk includes antibodies which help your baby’s immune system fight off infection, which can be beneficial well past 12 months of age. Additionally, if you are sick, breastfeeding your baby can help keep her from getting sick.
- Emotional/bonding benefits. The breastfeeding bond between a mother and child is sacred, especially if breastfeeding has been a pleasant experience for both. You can continue that precious bond by nursing past twelve months of age.
- Maternal benefits of breastfeeding. There are some distinct maternal benefits with the initialization of breastfeeding. After giving birth, breastfeeding can help reduce bleeding. This is because breastfeeding releases the chemical oxytocin, which causes uterine contractions and, in turn, reduces uterine bleeding.
Those contractions can also help shrink your uterus back to pre-pregnancy size.
Breastfeeding past 12 months of age may also help decrease your risk of breast cancer. A recent study found that for every twelve months of breastfeeding, a woman’s risk of breast cancer decreased by 4.3%.
Lastly, and probably the most desirable of all breastfeeding benefits, is the fact that most mothers won’t have a return to ovulation until they discontinue breastfeeding, or they will at least experience a significant delay returning to ovulation while they breastfeed.
Formula-fed babies can also receive benefit from being given formula past 12 months of age.
Some of the benefits of feeding formula past twelve months of life are:
- Balanced nutrition. Formula is well-regulated by the FDA, and includes all the nutrients your baby needs to develop and thrive. Continuing with formula feeding past twelve months of age ensures your baby is getting proper nutrition into toddlerhood.
- Bonding/skin to skin time. When feeding your baby with formula, it’s important to remember that this is also an opportunity to bond with them. Breastfeeding is not the only means of bonding with your baby. Anytime you feed your baby, with a bottle or breast, is an opportunity to bond.
Additionally, just as your baby needed skin to skin contact when they were a newborn to transition to life outside the uterus, you can continue to bond with your baby by continuing their feedings past 12 months of age.
Breastfeeding, Formula Feeding, and Solid Foods
Remember, your feeding journey is your own. You don’t have to limit your baby or yourself to one method of feeding; in fact, having some flexibility in your feeding goals will likely make you both happier in the long run. Being too rigid can lead to frustration and disdain for the method of feeding you feel you are “locked in” to.
Combination feeding is an option you can choose from birth. This method of feeding involves both breastfeeding and giving your baby formula. This plan allows you the benefits of breastfeeding with the flexibility of formula.
Moms who struggle to breastfeed, have supply issues, or who, for other reasons, cannot or choose not to breastfeed exclusively should know this option is available, workable, healthful, and normal.
When you begin giving your baby solid food, you may want to continue breastfeeding and introduce formula. This may sound overwhelming or confusing, and you may be nervous about giving your baby solid food the first time.
Don’t be! Introducing solids can be a fun and enjoyable experience for you and your baby. It’s also the next step in creating healthy food habits in your child and ensuring they develop tastes for a range and variety of different foods.
You can begin giving your baby solid food at six months of age. In the beginning, solid food introduction is more about exposing your child to different tastes, textures, and smells. Breastmilk and formula will still be the foundation of your baby’s diet.
When introducing solid foods our team of medical experts recommends:
- Begin offering solids no sooner than six months of life.
- Offer your baby a rainbow of food, from avocados to beets.
- Do puree or make sure it’s soft. You can purchase pre-made baby food, or simply make your own with or without a specialized baby food blender.
- Don’t make it too hot, it can burn their mouth. In fact, food that seems simply warm to you may still be too hot for your baby. It’s best to feed your baby food that is close to room temperature.
While you are introducing foods, you will want to keep the majority of your baby’s scheduled bottle or breastfeeding times the same. As previously mentioned, the majority of your baby’s nutrients will still come from formula and/or breastmilk, so it’s important they get that nutrition.
Offer one new solid food per week, and offer it two to three times per day, as you begin to develop a meal routine for your child.
Breastfeeding and/or formula feeding past 12 months of age is a great option for you and your baby, but it is an option. There is no requirement for you to continue if you don’t want to. While there may be some health benefits to continued breastfeeding, they are not absolute and your baby can still thrive if you discontinue nursing at one year of age.