Before 2005, world medical authorities recommended that babies be breastfed exclusively from birth to six months of age for optimal health and developmental benefits. Since the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) revised their policy on breastfeeding in 2005, it is now considered to be in a baby’s best interest to breastfeed through the first twelve months, at least. The World Health Organization (WHO) takes this recommendation a step further. WHO recommends that mothers breastfeed their babies exclusively until the baby is six months of age, and until two years of age or beyond (with complimentary foods). The WHO leaves the “beyond” part of their statement somewhat open to interpretation, suggesting that nursing should continue so long as it is still desirable to both the mother and child. The average age worldwide that children wean from breastfeeding is approximately 4.5 years, whereas the U.S. average weaning age falls far below the rest of the world to somewhere between 6 – 12 months. Not surprisingly, the U.S. ranks far below a majority of other countries in rates of successful breastfeeding.
The very same health and developmental benefits that breastfeeding provides in infancy, continue throughout toddlerhood. A toddler who is breastfed will have additional immune system support, nutritional support, and will be at a greatly reduced risk for illness in comparison to a child who is no longer receiving breast milk in their diet. A mother’s risk for cancer, arthritis, and osteoporosis is reduced by breastfeeding, and that risk reduction increases with the amount of time that she nurses her child. Nutritional value of breast milk does not reduce simply because the breastfeeding child reaches a certain age, nor do the specific health benefits that come from breastfeeding suddenly expire at a baby’s first birthday.
There is nothing “wrong” or “perverted” with breastfeeding a young child. The idea of “comfort nursing” is considered to be a large part of a toddler’s desire to breastfeed, and in itself may be met with skepticism and derision. Popular superstition suggests that allowing a child to nurse for comfort beyond infancy will endanger the child’s adjustment to eventual autonomy, and hinders their ability to become independent. Meanwhile, psychologists suggest that meeting dependency needs early in childhood allow children to become more independent later on. By that standard, women who allow “comfort nursing” to continue freely through toddlerhood may very well be raising more successfully independent children than those who wean early and before the child feels ready.
The American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) states in its position paper on breastfeeding:
“NURSING BEYOND INFANCY: As recommended by the WHO, breastfeeding should ideally continue beyond infancy, but this is not the cultural norm in the United States and requires ongoing support and encouragement. It has been estimated that a natural weaning age for humans is between two and seven years. Family physicians should be knowledgeable regarding the ongoing benefits to the child of extended breastfeeding, including continued immune protection, better social adjustment, and having a sustainable food source in times of emergency. The longer women breastfeed, the greater the decrease in their risk of breast cancer.” They include that “If the child is younger than two years of age, the child is at increased risk of illness if weaned.” (AAFP 2008)”
There are many articles and publications about the benefits of breastfeeding for babies, as well as its many benefits for mothers. Even people who understand and agree with the collective medical opinion on the subject of breastfeeding, may be taken aback at the idea of breastfeeding children as toddlers. The cultural bias toward breastfeeding and the general oversexualization of womens’ breasts likely have much to do with this prejudice toward extended breastfeeding. The sensible remedy to this situation is better public health education on the subject of extended breastfeeding, which will eventually result in broader public acceptance of the practice. Women who intend on breastfeeding their children past the point of infancy have strong medical opinion and scientific research on their side, regardless of an outdated standard of cultural discomfort with the practice.
— Special thanks to Diana Coote, of OnyaBaby.com, for the beautiful image she provided of her son breastfeeding at 25 months old. OnyaBaby is a family-owned company that produces soft-structured infant carriers. OnyaBaby can also be found on Facebook.
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