Mothers receive a lot of judgment on how they raise their children. Some people are under the impression that moms are wrong if they don’t parent exactly how they parent. And this mom from Lancashire, England, is no stranger to that kind of scrutiny. Especially once people found out that she still breastfeeds her five-year-old son. Instead of letting the shame get to her, she advocates for extended breastfeeding.
“Just because it’s not a cultural norm doesn’t mean it’s weird,” said Amy Hardcastle to Café Mom. “There are things as a society we can have an opinion that it’s weird, but it’s not an objective truth.”
The Case for Extended Breastfeeding
Amy initially decided to breastfeed after poring through online natural parenting groups. “…I would read all of the questions that people put in and all of the answers to figure out what did I think.
“But before that, I don’t think I had ever seen a breastfed child and I said to my mom, ‘Oh how long do you think people breastfeed for?’ And she was like, ‘I don’t know.’ We both said, ‘maybe six months?’ We both pulled that figure out of the air, just thinking we think that sounds like a good amount of time.”
However, discussing breastfeeding and committing to it are two very different things. When her baby was four weeks old, she almost stopped because of how painful latching was. “Then I just happened to have someone come speak to me and give me the right advice,” she says. “And then once you’ve cracked it with breastfeeding, it’s just about how long you want to continue.”
The mom attended a Manchester breastfeeding festival and learned more about the subject. There she learned that kids could breastfeed past six months, even a year. So she decided to continue.
Nursing an Older Baby
Amy joined a group with mothers nursing older babies, and they taught her about ‘natural weaning,’ which allows the child to decided when to stop. “It just depends on the child, really. My son is just like me, [he] is very sensitive and emotional. He’s a very soft little boy, you know, he’s not very boisterous. I think it just makes sense with his disposition that he would just happen to be a child who fed for longer than other children who were also left to wean when they want.”
Their nursing regime is much different at this age than when he was a baby. Amy affirms that they’ll stop whenever he decides. Nowadays, breastfeeding acts to comfort him, not for sustenance, and usually takes place about two times a week, or less. “He’s basically weaned,” she explains.
Amy shares her story in the hopes to empower other mothers who are judged for nursing for ‘too long’ or ‘too short’. She encourages mothers to go with their gut and continue nursing for as long as the child wants it.
“It happens and that it’s OK,” Amy says. “If you are someone who is already breastfeeding or are considering it — like me when I was pregnant — but don’t know how long people do it for you can say, ‘Oh, look at that you can do it until the child doesn’t want to anymore.'”
Can a Mother Breastfeed for Too Long?
First of all, there’s no clear answer to how long is considered ‘extended breastfeeding.’ Some think it’s after a year, some after 18 months, and some after six.
The Academy of American Pediatrics (AAP) recommends mothers to breastfeed for about a year. Continuing after that depends on the mutual desires of the infant and mother.  Similarly, the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends breastfeeding for “up to two years and beyond.” 
There are some benefits cited for breastfeeding and extended breastfeeding:
- Nutrition. Breastmilk retains its nutritional value no matter the length of the nursing period.
- It supports the child’s immune system. 
- It’s a time for mothers to bond with their children.
- Breastfeeding could become a source of comfort for the child.
- For babies, it may help to reduce the risk of developing allergies* later on . It may also help to reduce the risk of asthma, obesity, and other chronic diseases .
- For mothers, it may reduce the risk of breast cancer, diabetes, hypertension, obesity, and heart attacks. 
*Evidence for risk reduction is seen when there is a family history of allergies, and when the child is breastfed for at least 4 months .
Does extended breastfeeding stunt the child’s development?
This is the main criticism against extended breastfeeding, that it harms the child psychologically, making them dependent and needy. However, there is no clear proof of this. 
“I would say that the benefits of long-term breast-feeding — as long as both mother and child want — are enormous,” says University of Delaware anthropologist Katherine Dettwyler. “Long-term breastfeeding allows for normal development of the child’s brain, facial structure, immune system, and emotional resilience to life’s slings and arrows. As far as I know, there are no ‘costs’ to the child. If the mother doesn’t want to continue breast-feeding, then, of course, she shouldn’t feel obliged to — regardless of the age of the child.
“But people should be informed that nursing a 6–7+year-old is a perfectly normal and natural and healthy thing to be doing for the child, and that their fears of emotional harm are baseless.” 
For now, the largest con for nursing an older baby is facing the many critics. Other than that, the breastfeeding period depends on what is best for the mother and child.
- “Breastfeeding and the Use of Human Milk. American Academy of Pediatrics. ” March 2012.
- “Breastfeeding.” World Health Organization.
- “Breast-feeding beyond infancy: What you need to know.” Mayo Clinic. April 15, 2020.
- American Academy of Pediatrics recommendations on the effects of early nutritional interventions on the development of atopic disease.” Current Opinion in Pediatrics. December 2008.
- “Breastfeeding Benefits Your Baby’s Immune System”. HealthyChildren.org. American Academy of Pediatrics. August 10, 2020
- “Extended Breastfeeding: Can You Nurse for Too Long?” Healthline. Wendy Wisner. March 25, 2020.
- “Breastfeeding, Family Physicians Supporting (Position Paper).” AAFP. AAFP Breastfeeding Advisory Committee 2014.
- “What’s Right About A 6-Year-Old Who Breast-Feeds.” NPR. Barbara J. King. January 15, 2015.