Breastfeeding: How Long Is Too Long?

You’ve probably laughed at the humorous jabs in movies and sitcoms aimed at the idea of breastfeeding “older” children. But if you are enjoying a breastfeeding relationship with your infant, at some point you will start to consider whether or when you should wean your child.

You might be surprised to learn that the worldwide average length of breastfeeding each child is about 4 years. This is because many societies encourage children to continue breastfeeding until they wean themselves. For many nations, this is an economical and nutritional lifesaver for the family as water is often polluted, formula is way beyond what a family can afford and refrigeration is scarce. But what about in more industrialized societies?

In the last century, a trend existed that equated wealth with baby formula – or more aptly – poverty with breastfeeding. Because of this trend, parents used to aspire to formula-feed their babies for higher social stature. In the last few decades, however, scientists have learned that breast milk is far superior to anything man can make to imitate it and that, besides its nutritional benefits, the act of breastfeeding itself provides benefits to the child and health benefits to the mother. Now, it seems, the pendulum has swung back in favor of Mother Nature! Breast is best. Lower percentages of breastfed infants are now considered to be a national and global problem in urgent need of resolution! But is there such a thing as too much of a good thing?

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that all babies be breastfed exclusively – that is without pacifiers, formula, solid foods or other liquids – for the first six months of life and that, after solid food is introduced, breastfeeding should continue for a minimum of the first 12 months of life and, thereafter as long as is mutually beneficial to Mother and Child. They also suggest that “there is no upper limit to the duration of breastfeeding and no evidence of psychological or developmental harm from breastfeeding into the third year of life or longer” (AAP 2005).

The American Academy of Family Physicians issued a position statement on breastfeeding which recommends: “Breastfeeding beyond the first year offers considerable benefits to both mother and child, and should continue as long as mutually desired.” They also note that “If the child is younger than two years of age, the child is at increased risk of illness if weaned.” (AAFP 2001)

The World Health Organization also recommends “exclusive breastfeeding for six months as a global public health recommendation, taking into
account the findings of the WHO expert consultation on optimal duration of exclusive breastfeeding, and to provide safe and appropriate complementary foods, with continued
breastfeeding for up to two years of age or beyond,
exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life with continued breastfeeding for at least 2 years” (WHO 2002)

2004 Health Canada Recommendation on Exclusive Breastfeeding Duration says
“Exclusive breastfeeding is recommended for the first six months of life for healthy term infants, as breast milk is the best food for optimal growth. Infants should be introduced to nutrient-rich, solid foods with particular attention to iron at six months with continued breastfeeding for up to two years and beyond.”

These are just some of the well respected leaders in the area of health and wellness who all agree that breastfeeding for as long as both Mother and Baby find beneficial is exactly the right amount of time.

The answer, then, is no. There is no such thing as too much of a good thing when it comes to the healthy extended breastfeeding relationship between Mother and Child.