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The question: How old is too old for a child to breastfeed?

The answer: Breastfeeding has many benefits such as lowering the risk of obesity, strengthening the immune system, perhaps reducing the risk of allergies, facilitating optimal brain growth, reducing the risk of middle ear infections and protecting against diarrhea. From the mom's perspective, she can reduce her risk of premenopausal breast cancer if she breast feeds for at least two years.

So one may wonder if these benefits are that much better the longer a mother breastfeeds. Based on current data, both the Canadian Paediatric Society and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommend exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months.

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The AAP adds that breastfeeding is appropriate "as long as it is mutually desired by the mother and child."

The World Health Organization recommends breastfeeding babies up to two years.

Some mothers have decided to breastfeed until the child is no longer interested. In some cases, this may last until the child is five years old. Many of these mothers face criticism for doing that. From a purely medical perspective, there are obvious benefits to breastfeeding, but as children get older, it is importantthat theyconsume other food groups in order to prevent low iron or vitamin D levels.

Despite encouragement, the majority of women do not breastfeed their babies beyond one year. A recentCanadian survey revealed that an average of only 17 per cent of new mothers nurse their babies for a full year.

The bottom line is that breastfeeding up to at least one year is the ideal. Beyond one year, there are still some benefits. But beyond three years of age, most professional organizations refrain from a specific opinion and use terms such as "as long as mutually desired."

Send pediatrician Peter Nieman your questions at . He will answer select questions, which could appear in The Globe and Mail and/or on The Globe and Mail web site. Your name will not be published if your question is chosen.

Q&As from Dr. Peter Nieman.

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The content provided in The Globe and Mail's Ask a Health Expert centre is for information purposes only and is neither intended to be relied upon nor to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

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