The Science Is In: Breastfeeding Beyond Babyhood is Normal

Feed

My son kicks off the covers and rouses from his slumber with a start. It’s 2am and he’s having a bad dream.

When hugs fail to soothe his soul, I honour his request as he tugs at my pajama top, allowing him to nurse and find the comfort he seeks. Relaxation and relief are immediate.

Flooded with feelings of gratitude for this maternal superpower, I’m astonished that our journey has taken us this far.

We’ve been breastfeeding for four and a half years.

As the weight of his little body melts into my arms, I’m transported back in time to the early days of motherhood; sitting upright in bed with a nursing pillow around my waist, lamp on, snack handy and feeling mesmerized by the newborn spirit that nestled himself quickly into my heart.

As a new mother, I remember being asked how long I anticipated breastfeeding for by curious family members: the truth was that I had no idea, but I’d confidently reply with ‘two years’, qualifying my unconventional response by saying that the World Health Organization recommends it. But, on my son’s second birthday we were far from done.

And so, one more day turned into one more week. Weeks morphed into months and months merged into years.

Every day I am able to nourish my son in this way feels like a blessing, an exceptional encore perhaps, we’re both cheering for more. We nurse at dawn and dusk; a natural gateway between our mellow slumber and the electric energy of our days.

Claim your FREE Guide: 5 Breastfeeding Secrets to Make Nursing Easier

Occasionally my son nurses to ease a bump and bruise, both physical and emotional, and when he does, it’s spiritual gold dust for me too. A few moments of meditation, where the world stops and it’s just my son and I. A few moments of slowness that gives me the space to contemplate the speed and direction of our lives.

A few moments to reset and catch my breath in our unnecessarily busy world.

Like most of us, I’m parenting without a village in the most literal of senses. It’s beyond difficult, but in many ways, it’s liberating. The flip side of little support is a greater sense of freedom to make my own choices.

But, I have heard comments and I’m not immune to them; “If he has teeth he’s too old to nurse! If she can ask for milk she’s too old to breastfeed! Isn’t it about time she gave her breasts back to her husband?! That mother is psychologically damaging her child.”

Our western culture considers breastfeeding beyond babyhood to be abnormal and, in many ways, consciously or not, sabotages the practice. Whether and for how long a woman chooses to breastfeed is a personal decision and one that should be met with support, not judgement.

This post is not intended to be divisive, but rather to share my unexpected experience and inform mothers (and those who care for them) so that we all feel empowered to make our own choices. I firmly believe that ‘informed is best’ and only a mother knows how to make the right choice for her and her family.

So here are a handful of reasons science proves breastfeeding beyond babyhood is beyond normal.

1. BECAUSE HUMANS ARE DESIGNED TO NURSE BEYOND BABYHOOD

Dr. Katherine A. Dettwyler, anthropologist and breastfeeding advocate, suggests that evolution dictates that our children expect to breastfeed for three to seven years. Katherine cites numerous anthropological studies, to determine what a ‘normal’ weaning age may be:

  • Quadrupling of birth weight: Research shows weaning occurs after birth weight is quadrupled in large mammals. For humans, this occurs at around 27-30 months.
    Adult bodyweight: Other studies suggest primates wean when they reach one-third of adult bodyweight. For humans, this means weaning at four to seven years.
  • Length of pregnancy: Chimpanzees and gorillas nurse more than six times the length of gestation. Drawing a comparison from our closest cousins suggests that humans would nurse for 4.5 years, or six times gestational length.
  • Dental eruption: Many primates nurse until the first permanent molars erupt. In humans, this occurs at around 5.5 to 6.0 years.

2. BECAUSE BREASTMILK DOESN’T HAVE AN EXPIRY DATE 

Recent research by Vicki Greene, a biosciences student at South Devon College in the UK, went viral when she shared images of nine petri dishes containing the bacteria M. luteus, to which she had added human breastmilk from a mom of a 15-month-old and from the mom of a 3-year-old.

The results were incredible.

In the center of the petri dish, where the breast milk was placed, the bacteria was completely killed off. Research continues, with similar results having been seen for E. coli and MRSA.

Similarly exciting results were reported in a groundbreaking 2010 study that showed breastmilk contains a substance known as HAMLET which has been shown to kill forty different types of cancer cells.

Supporting this are results from a 2015 investigation published in JAMA which analyzed 18 studies related to leukemia and breastfeeding. Researchers found that breastfeeding a child for six months or longer was associated with a 19% lower risk for childhood leukemia. Encouragingly, their analyses also revealed that children who were ever breastfed had an 11% lower risk for childhood leukemia.

The composition of breastmilk does change over time but it does so in order to match the evolving needs of a child. The notion that breastmilk has no nutritional value or protective function beyond a certain age is false. A study published in the journal Pediatrics, reported that the fat and energy contents in milk from moms who have been nursing for more than one year were “significantly increased” compared to milk from moms breastfeeding younger babies. Some immune factors also increase in concentration during the second year of breastfeeding.

According to KellyMom.com, 448mL of breastmilk provides toddlers with 29% of energy requirements, 43% of protein requirements, 36% of calcium requirements and 94% of vitamin B12 requirements.

3. BECAUSE IT FUELS EMOTIONAL AND INTELLECTUAL INTELLIGENCE

Extensive research shows that children who breastfeed the longest have higher rates of cognitive achievement (IQ scores, grades in school), with a positive relationship being seen between longer breastfeeding duration and social development. Elizabeth Baldwin, in Extended Breastfeeding and the Law says that, ‘Meeting a child’s dependency needs is the key to helping that child achieve independence. And children outgrow these needs according to their own unique timetable.’

When we attempt to push children into premature independence they feel less secure in that independence than those who have achieved it at their own pace. Building a solid foundation for our kids at a young age by meeting their dependency requirements will set them up to be more grounded, independent teenagers and adults.

4. BECAUSE IT NOURISHES A MOTHER’S HEALTH 

Recent research has shown that extended breastfeeding was related to a 30% reduction in the risk of premenopausal breast cancer. But, there are even more health benefits including:

• Delaying the return of fertility by suppressing ovulation helping to achieve natural child spacing
• Reduce the risk of ovarian, uterine, and endometrial cancer
• Protect against osteoporosis
• Reduce the risk of rheumatoid arthritis, cardiovascular disease and post-natal depression

5. BECAUSE BREASTFEEDING PROTECTS KIDS, NO MATTER THEIR AGE 

The World Health Organization suggests that “a modest increase in breastfeeding rates could prevent up to 10% of all deaths of children under five: Breastfeeding plays an essential and sometimes underestimated role in the treatment and prevention of childhood illness.”

Breastmilk is a unique substance that can’t be replicated, protecting babies and children against disease regardless of their age.

In the second-year postpartum breastmilk contains significantly higher concentrations of lactoferrin, lysozyme and immunoglobulin A than milk from new mothers. Antibodies to infectious disease remains high throughout lactation and when a nursing child is affected by an illness the number of white blood cells in the mother’s milk spikes in response. The mechanism behind this response is thought to involve the mother’s body reacting to backwash from her baby’s mouth through breastfeeding.

It is also well known that breastfed babies and children more likely to experience lower rates of asthma and allergies. It is thought that the short-chain fatty acids found in breast milk are uniquely able to line an infants’ gut as well as power the cells in the colon, leading to a more robust immune system.

GO AHEAD AND BREASTFEED BEYOND BABYHOOD

Before becoming a mother I didn’t think I’d breastfeed at all, but when we surrender to motherhood it has a way of shattering our preconceived ideals and disempowering cultural norms. If there is one thing that I have learned on this journey, it is that fitting in is overrated. Authenticity and following our instincts is the key to true belonging.

Breastfeeding is a maternal superpower; why we would give it up prematurely is simply beyond me.

An excellent post, Why Mothers Nurse Their Children into Toddlerhood, sums up my feelings on nursing beyond babyhood perfectly, “No matter how much effort has gone into the selling of distance between mother and child – distance achieved by mother substitutes, like playpens and pacifiers, and by child substitutes, like hobbies and pets – mothers, it seems, cannot be changed. We still are happiest when we can hold our children close.”

When we hold our children close something magical happens.

If nursing beyond babyhood is the right choice for you then I encourage you to follow your heart. Find strength in the knowledge that although we may be trailblazers by modern standards, women have been nursing their children beyond babyhood throughout human history. The science is in: breastfeeding beyond babyhood is NORMAL.

Claim your FREE Guide: 5 Breastfeeding Secrets to Make Nursing Easier

* Post updated on December 5th, 2017

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COMMENTS
  • September 21, 2015
    Leia

    Thank you for this! I nursed my first three for a year but have been thinking a lot about what I am going to do with my fourth who is currently four months old. I really want to follow his lead and continue to nurse for as long as he would like but I really fear the social pressures surrounding the issue. Now I have some facts to backup my decision. I commend you for your bravery! I only hope I will stay strong when the pressure is on. Cheers!

    • September 29, 2015
      Tracy Gillett

      Thank you for your comment Leia and for reading! Firstly, congrats on four kids. You are AMAZING in my book. I am the eldest of four kids and I honestly don’t know how my parents did it. Good on you! I am hearing you on the social pressure. We live in Canada but I’m from Australia so although I wish my family was closer to help out one bonus is I’ve managed to do a lot of “hippie” things under the radar! I am actually in Australia at the moment visiting family and friends and I must admit it has made me feel more pressure. One question I commonly get is “When are you going to stop breastfeeding?” I often reply, “It’s a two way street, you’ll need to ask Thomas when he’d like to stop”. One comment that seems to stop people pretty quickly is referencing the World Health Organization’s recommendation to breastfeed until a minimum of 2 years. Then once you get to two years (if you want to keep going at that point), you’ll have built the confidence to face people’s questions. At the end of the day the only opinions that matter are yours, your child’s and your husband’s. Thanks so much for the comment – makes writing the post worthwhile! 🙂

  • November 24, 2015
    Holly

    Try explaining that you’re still nursing your five year old. My daughter is extremely sensitive and I still don’t feel she’s ready to give it up. She only nurses in the evenings and mornings, but with so many changes going on in her life, the “milkies” are her lifeline, her safe place.

    • November 26, 2015
      Tracy Gillett

      Thanks Holly….and its reassuring to hear your comment. We’re halfway to five and I suspect nursing may go on for a while still….maybe I’ll be saying the same in a few years. Good on you. I think it’s awesome. The needs of little ones are way more relevant than someone’s judgement but I totally understand it takes courage and thick skin to keep going. And thank you for reading!

  • December 31, 2015

    Tracey, Thank you for this wonderful article. I find the prejudice against prolonged breastfeeding deeply troubling. My son is two and a half and still nurses. It’s funny, I thought somehow that 2 was the best cutoff age, then when he turned two, it didn’t feel right to stop. My son is on the small size and the breast milk keeps him healthy. And the loves it. When I researched how children are weaned in traditional cultures I felt very comfortable continuing. Dylan is extremely healthy, lively and confident. And we have a strong, close bond. So I’m going to let him decide. He really wants to nurse when he’s ready for nap or bedtime.

    • January 01, 2016
      Tracy Gillett

      Jessica, no problem and thank you for your comment. I agree and find it troubling too – it’s amazing how quickly society as a whole forgets what is completely normal. I thought the same – that we’d nurse until 2 years old but at 2 1/2 we’re still going strong and it seems so important to my son – I’m not keen to stop any time soon. Thanks again and Happy New Year to you and your family.

  • January 01, 2016

    Thanks so much for this post! My son is 3.5 and I am still giving him boob to sleep. I don’t think there’ s much milk in there but it puts him out like a light and calms him down. There are so many other benefits of breastfeeding. I just don’t tell people I’m still doing it.

    • January 01, 2016
      Tracy Gillett

      Thank you Heather! And awesome – hope we’re still going then. My little two and a half year old is teething again and all he wants is “boo-zie!”. Makes me relieved to still be nursing. Shame we feel it’s hard to tell people – know we’re you’re coming from, people don’t understand and think it’s odd huh. Thanks again for your comment and Happy New Year 🙂

  • January 01, 2016

    Hi Tracy,
    Your post made me smile and remember nursing my kids; they decided on their own when they were done and that was that (no one nursed over 10 months).
    Truthfully, I was a bit disappointed that I didn’t get to be the Earth Mother I thought I would be in that department. (They are all grown up and living their own lives now and we are all friends so I must have been done something right!)
    And you have a beautiful website!
    Cheers,
    Claire

    • January 02, 2016
      Tracy Gillett

      Hi Claire, I’m happy it made you smile! And I bet you are an amazing mother – nursing to ten months is something to be super proud of. Thank you for the compliment – I’m actually working in the background on a fresh site which I’m so excited about. Hoping to launch later in January or early February. Come and visit me again! I’m dipping my feet into the world of social media….very new to me 🙂 Instagram is awesome and slowly learning about Facebook. Happy New Year and thank you again for your comment and reading,
      Cheers
      Tracy

  • March 20, 2016
    Lori in Arizona

    Ah, nursing in a rocker! Those were the days! Not only do young mothers get pressure from their own mothers, but from their husbands and peers. Luckily I never cared a wit what others thought! I nursed until 4 and then in times of stress or getting to sleep until it just petered out. Such a natural and powerful thing, breastfeeding. I knew it was good for me, too. I wasn’t just a milk bar. I assumed everyone on the periphery was jealous. Jokes of ‘will he come home from kindergarten to nurse?’ passed me by. People can be such nimrods. Be bold. No one has power over you. Even your jealous husband!

    • March 20, 2016
      Tracy Gillett

      I love how you roll Lori! We’re very similar 🙂 One of my favorite sayings is we have to stand for something or we’ll fall for anything. And nobody but my son has been a greater inspiration to stand up for what I believe is right. Thanks again.

  • April 10, 2016
    Florence

    Thanks for this! I stopped breastfeeding my first son when he was 11 months old, because I was a young, inexperienced first-time mum who took criticism to heart and listened to well-meaning but silly advice. It went against my instincts, and I wish I had had more confidence and belief in myself then, but I didn’t.
    My second son I breastfed until just before his third birthday – after years of being a mum, I really didn’t care any more what other people said.
    My third son turned three last month and is still breastfeeding – mostly before bed and in the mornings when he wakes up. We will stop whenever he is ready to give it up.
    My first-born, Oscar, is now 12 and a terrific pre-adolescent on whom years of positive parenting have worked wonders. But I know in my heart that he would have benefited from being breastfed longer. His brother Bruno (now 9) naturally possesses this totally unshakable certainty in his own value and place in the world that comes, amongst other things, from having been breastfed long enough. It took me a lot more work to instil this same confidence in Oscar.
    So thank you again for writing this – I hope it inspires many mums out there <3

    • April 13, 2016
      Tracy Gillett

      Thank you for your perspective Florence – that’s such a valuable insight. I have one son at the moment, who turns three next month, and we’re still nursing and loving it. He has a cold at the moment and the comfort it brings when he’s not well is incredible – I’d feel lost without it. Interesting insight into the difference you feel longer nursing has had for your children. You sound like an amazing mum!

    • July 29, 2016
      Rachel

      This! This is what I know and believe that it can give my two nurslings one day. I appreciate your words.

  • April 10, 2016
    Erin

    This is such an important topic for mom’s researching about breastfeeding and weaning! Thanks for sharing your perspective!

    I have been blessed to be able to nurse my son for a year and half, and I’m sure he’s got a lot more in him. He is soothed by it, reoriented in times of fussiness, and it is definitely one of his favorite activities! I know it’s been great for him and I’m ready to keep going as long as he’s still interested.

    But following your child’s lead doesn’t always result in nursing till elementary school, and I think it’s important to hear those stories as well:
    My daughter was adopted, and came home at 2 weeks. She had been bottle-fed, so I was worried she would not be able to nurse, but nurse she did! And for a long time it was a good experience for her, too. When she was about 8 months old, she really struggled to nurse. I could tell she was not enjoying it, but felt like I should try to encourage her to keep going. She hated it so much she started loosing weight from months of refusal and fighting, and that was the point when I realized that I needed to start listening to her cues more and let her bottle feed because it was so much more relaxing for her. Curse of a fast let-down, I guess. ?

    And the old adage proves true again: “Every baby is different!” That’s why it’s so important for us as moms to be flexible and advocate for what our kids need from us.

    Thanks again!

  • December 26, 2016
    Jim

    Another great article Tracy. After a female co-worker witnessed my wife nursing our toddler daughter in our parked car, she made some ridiculing comments in front of other co-workers (which fortunately backfired as everyone else stuck up for my wife!) but it made us realise how common such opinions are, no doubt related to the overwhelming reliance upon formula which we’ve avoided from the beginning.
    There was one quote at the start of this article which made we wince – the one about “giving her breasts back to her husband”. This idea about a woman’s body being her husband’s “property” for him to do as he sees fit with is one which has always made me uncomfortable and angry as it’s the one which goes hand in hand with rape and other sexual abuse. Of course I love my wife’s boobs! But they’re still hers, not mine. I would love these kinds of beliefs to well and truly die out as they’ve had their time and aren’t welcome anymore.

    • January 05, 2017
      Tracy Gillett

      Couldn’t agree more Jim – I’ve even had mum friends say things like that to me, about their husband’s wanting their boobs back. It makes me wince too. Women and their bodies are not property as you say. Its sad how sexualized our bodies have become and I’m sure its central to the reason so many people struggle with the idea of children beyond babyhood breastfeeding. Thinking that somehow toddlers sexualise their mother’s breasts is such a ridiculous notion. Good on your wife for following her instincts and you for supporting her. Thanks again for reading!

  • May 28, 2017
    Stephanie

    I enjoyed reading this and constantly need some support for being what’s usually considered weird. I’m still nursing my 2.5 yo twins morning and night. I never thought I would still be nursing at this point and CRINGE when I remember telling my friend she should stop after a year before I had kids! But when I had to have an emergency hysterectomy after delivery, being able to nurse them was/is such a triumph for the three of us and not something I’m willing to arbitrarily stop. Also not sure how else I’d calm them down when all else fails, ha!

  • December 06, 2017
    Barb

    My son would definitely thank you for this post. His mom does! He’s almost two and shows no signs of wanting to stop. This really helps give me the confidence to continue breastfeeding him.

  • December 10, 2017
    Alison Edwards

    You are very blessed that this is your experience of breastfeeding! It’s also important to realise (like someone else mentioned) that unfortunately this is not everyone’s experience of nursing! I have had 3 babies who have all struggled to nurse for various reasons – tongue tie, severe silent reflux, allergies etc!! I have put all my energy into feeding them and this has meant fighting then at every feeding, nursing them to sleep and then feeding and eventually having to express! I had no help and payed a fortune to see several private professionals (lactation consultants, tongue tie practitioners, cranial osteopath etc)! All of these made no differnce. I had screaming babies day and night for the first 14 months of their lives and I could not comfort them by feeding them. The only way I could comfort them was by carrying them around upright day and night. I am still struggling with exhaustion and feelings of failure / depression / grieving that i never had that lovely, pleasurable feeding experience! For my babies feeding was extremely painful like feeding them poison (the acid burning their oesophagus) and so every time I tried to bring them to me to feed they screamed and arched and flailed and refused! They still have negative associations with food as a result of this. So let’s try to be supportive and sensitive to mums and remember that most are only ever trying their best!! (This comes from one of the most pro-breastfeeding, stubborn mums you would ever meet! Who previously judged other mums until God showed me what it’s like to really struggle and be on the other side of that judgement!!)

    • December 10, 2017
      Tracy Gillett

      Thanks so much for sharing Alison – my sister had a very similar experience to yours with misdiagnosed tongue and lip ties and a multitude of other issues. I completely empathize and I can’t cover every aspect of breastfeeding for everyone’s experience in one blog post unfortunately. I wrote a post a few months ago about this very issue though and that for some mothers who desperately want to nurse and can’t, for one reason or another, that it can increase the chances of PPD. Here’s a link to that post which you may like. In this post I am trying to reach the mothers who are nursing their babies but feel pressure to stop for no good reason, other than that society predetermines babies/toddlers/children are now suddenly “too old” to nurse because that’s simply not true. There is a lot of judgment for mothers who decide to nurse beyond babyhood. But in this world there seems to be judgment for everything! I do not judge mothers who nurse, don’t nurse, don’t want to nurse, can’t nurse etc – all I want is for mothers to feel confident to make their own choice and have the right information to do so. I have a very supportive FB group I recently started that you may like to join too – a judgment free zone 🙂 Thanks again for sharing your experience – it is so important that we see all sides of what happens for mothers.

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