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.
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.