Updated: Oct 2
Breastfeeding beyond infancy is often perceived as unnecessary, bizarre and odd in Western societies. With less than 1% of British mothers nursing beyond 12 months (1) compared to 35% of mothers in the US (2), it comes as no surprise that many people think it is unusual for a child to still be nursing at 3 years old - as my son is. But is it harmful?
My son is still nursing partly because of my understanding of the long term health benefits for he and I, but mostly because it is the quickest and easiest way of getting him to sleep at nap time and each night! I also enjoy the closeness as much as he does (most of the time…) and it feels like a really privilege to have been able to nurture him in this natural way for as long as I have.
Despite it being convenient for our family, many of our relatives and friends have voiced concerns about the fact that I have not made a concerted effort to wean our son off the breast yet. Typically, their concerns stem from being worried about stunting his socio-emotional growth or fears that it will have a negative psychological effect upon him. They are not worried about his nutrition - he is an excellent eater - rather there seems to be an overriding fear that he will never separate from my breast unless I detach him from it, permanently, soon. Are there fears warranted? Well, I am not even remotely concerned, and here’s why:
1. There are zero studies to date which have found any detrimental effects of breastfeeding beyond infancy for children. Not one. That is not to say that there may not be any negative consequences found in the future, but I believe wholeheartedly that as long as a mother and child are happy to continue nursing and it works for their family, they should do just that. No child wants to nurse forever and even in the highly unlikely event that they did, no reasonable mother would allow her child to nurse beyond a certain point. For some mothers that point may be one year, for others it may be five or more. I think we would be doing our children a favour if we allowed them to grow up at their own pace - as they all do eventually - instead of pushing society’s prescribed timeline onto them. As Dr. Lori Winter, of the American Academy of Pediatrics says, "It's completely appropriate that a mother should avail herself to her infant or toddler," she continues, "That's in no way damaging to the child." (3).
2. Numerous studies have found links between breastfeeding duration and a plethora of cognitive, linguistic and socio-emotional benefits (4). Critics argue that claims that breastfeeding boosts intelligence are null and void when accounting for other variables such as maternal intelligence and socioeconomic status. However, there is a body of research that does account for these variations and still finds cognitive and socio-emotional benefits for babies and children who are breastfed (4). Many of these studies have found a dose-response relationship. That is to say that the longer a child was breastfed, the more benefits were found (4,5,6).
3. A common misconception about nursing beyond infancy is that breast milk no longer serves a nutritional purpose. Others even believe that breast milk turns to water after a certain period of time(!). Rest assured that there is no truth in that old wives tale. In fact, breast milk has been proven to continue to provide toddlers with the following nutrition into their second year of life: In the second year (12-23 months), 448 mL of breast milk provides:
29% of energy requirements
43% of protein requirements
36% of calcium requirements
75% of vitamin A requirements
76% of folate requirements
94% of vitamin B12 requirements
60% of vitamin C requirements
— Dewey 2001 (7).
4. Further than that, it has also been found that breast milk adapts to the evolving needs of older children until 24 months and beyond. For instance, between 24-48 months of lactation, breast milk contains twice as much fat as it does at less than 12 months of lactation. During the same time period, breast milk also contains more than 50% more protein than is does during months 1-12 (8). This suggests that breast milk continues to be an important source of energy as well as vitamins and minerals at a time when children can be are notoriously picky eaters. I like to think of if as Mother Nature‘s nutritional safety net for little ones.
5. Interestingly, in an illuminating study of over 2500 mothers and their infants, breastfed babies have been found to be better protected against obesity than those supplemented with formula. This relationship was also found to be dose dependent, meaning that the longer babies were breastfed, the less likely they were to become obese (9).
To summarize: there are no negative consequences to nursing beyond infancy for toddlers and older children, as long as is it mutually desired by mother and child (no matter what your grandmother thinks about it). However, when a mother or her child no longer want to breastfeed, they should be supported to stop. All of the benefits in the world are quite frankly, irrelevant if breastfeeding is simply not working for you or your family. If it is though, you should carry on, in the knowledge that despite popular opinion, it is really good for your growing child.
So, we’ve established that breastfeeding beyond infancy is not even remotely harmful to children...but how about mothers? Subscribe and switch on your Instagram notifications for the forthcoming blog post: ‘How Breastfeeding Beyond Infancy Affects Mothers: The Good, The Bad and The Milk-Stained.’
Danielle Facey is a mother of one who is passionate about empowering moms to breastfeed on their own terms, for as long as they choose. Her debut book, ‘Self Care: The Breastfeeding Edition (50 Practical, Evidence-Based Tips for New Nursing Moms) is available here, now: www.thebreastfeedingmentor.com/book