Breast-feeding--whether to do it and for how long--remains a flash point in American society. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the U.S. Surgeon General encourage mothers to skip infant formula and breast-feed exclusively for six months. But although 75% of U.S. mothers start out nursing their babies, only 44% have stuck with it by the time their child is 6 months old--and just 15% are breast-feeding exclusively by that point.
Extended breast-feeding, a term typically applied to nursing beyond a baby's first birthday, is still a niche practice, at least in the U.S. But that doesn't mean toddlers don't continue to reap the benefits of breast milk, which adapts to older children's needs, in part by ramping up the fat and energy content. The AAP recommends introducing solid foods when a baby is about 6 months old but also suggests that nursing last "one year or longer or as mutually desired by mother and infant." And what about beyond infancy? "There is no known harm," says Dr. Richard Schanler, who chairs the AAP's section on breast-feeding. "Most breast-feeding in the second and third year is social and not necessarily nutritional."