Because more and more women are now
breastfeeding their babies, more and more are also finding that they enjoy
breastfeeding enough to want to continue longer than the usual few months
they initially thought they would. UNICEF has long encouraged
breastfeeding for two years and longer, and the American Academy of
Pediatrics is now on record as encouraging mothers to nurse at least one
year and as long after as both mother and baby desire. Even the Canadian
Paediatric Society, in its latest feeding statement acknowledges that
women may want to breastfeed for two years or longer and Health Canada has
put out a statement similar to UNICEF's. Breastfeeding to 3 and 4 years of
age has been common in much of the world until recently in human history,
and it is still common in many societies for toddlers to breastfeed.
Why should breastfeeding continue past six months?
Because mothers and babies often enjoy breastfeeding a lot. Why stop an
enjoyable relationship? And continued breastfeeding is even good for the
health and welfare of both the mother and child.
But it is said that breastmilk has no value after six months.
Perhaps this is said, but it is patently wrong. That anyone (including
pediatricians) can say such a thing only shows how ignorant so many people
in our society are about breastfeeding. Breastmilk is, after all, milk.
Even after six months, it still contains protein, fat, and other
nutritionally important and appropriate elements which babies and children
need. Breastmilk still contains immunologic factors that help protect the
baby. In fact, some immune factors in breastmilk that protect the baby
against infection are present in greater amounts in the second year of
life than in the first. This is, of course as it should be, since children
older than a year are generally exposed to more sources of infection.
Breastmilk still contains special growth factors that help the immune
system to mature, and which help the brain, gut, and other organs to
develop and mature.
It has been well shown that children in daycare who are still
breastfeeding have far fewer and less severe infections than the children
who are not breastfeeding. The mother thus loses less work time if she
continues nursing her baby once she is back at her paid work.
It is interesting that formula company marketing pushes the use of
formula (a very poor copy of the real thing) for a year, yet implies that
breastmilk (from which the poor copy is made) is only worthwhile for 6
months or even less ("the best nutrition for newborns"). Too
many health professionals have taken up the refrain.
I have heard that the immunologic factors in breastmilk prevent the
baby from developing his own immunity if I breastfeed past six months.
This is untrue; in fact, this is absurd. It is unbelievable how so many
people in our society twist around the advantages of breastfeeding and
turn them into disadvantages. We give babies immunizations so that they
are able to defend themselves against the real infection. Breastmilk also
helps the baby to fight off infections. When the baby fights off these
infections, he becomes immune. Naturally.
But I want my baby to become independent.
And breastfeeding makes the toddler dependent? Don't believe it. The
child who breastfeeds until he weans himself (usually from 2 to 4 years),
is generally more independent, and, perhaps, more importantly, more secure
in his independence. He has received comfort and security from the breast,
until he is ready to make the step himself to stop. And when he makes that
step himself, he knows he has achieved something, he knows he has moved
ahead. It is a milestone in his life.
Often we push children to become "independent" too quickly.
To sleep alone too soon, to wean from the breast too soon, to do without
their parents too soon, to do everything too soon. Don't push and the
child will become independent soon enough. What's the rush? Soon they will
be leaving home. You want them to leave home at 14? If a need is met, it
goes away. If a need is unmet (such as the need to breastfeed and be close
to mom), it remains a need well into childhood and even the teenage years.
Of course, breastfeeding can, in some situations, be used to foster an
over dependent relationship. But so can food and toilet training. The
problem is not the breastfeeding. This is another issue.
Possibly the most important aspect of nursing a toddler is not the
nutritional or immunologic benefits, important as they are. I believe the
most important aspect of nursing a toddler is the special relationship
between child and mother. Breastfeeding is a life-affirming act of love.
This continues when the baby becomes a toddler. Anyone without prejudices,
who has ever observed an older baby or toddler nursing can testify that
there is something almost magical, something special, something far beyond
food going on. A toddler will sometimes spontaneously, for no obvious
reason, break into laughter while he is nursing. His delight in the breast
goes far beyond a source of food. And if the mother allows herself,
breastfeeding becomes a source of delight for her as well, far beyond the
pleasure of providing food. Of course, it's not always great, but what is?
But when it is, it makes it all so worthwhile.
And if the child does become ill or does get hurt (and they do as they
meet other children and become more daring), what easier way to comfort
the child than breastfeeding? I remember nights in the emergency
department when mothers would walk their ill, non-nursing babies or
toddlers up and down the halls trying, often unsuccessfully, to console
them, while the nursing mothers were sitting quietly with their comforted,
if not necessarily happy, babies at the breast. The mother comforts the
sick child with breastfeeding, and the child comforts the mother by