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Breast is the Best, Even if You’re Three - Guest Writer Series

The following article, written by Colleen Mahon-Haft, is an informative piece on extended breastfeeding. Welcome Colleen to Healing Midiwfery!

Last year a Delta Airlines employee asked a nursing mother to put a blanket on her child’s head, because she said seeing the toddler nurse was“weird” and made her uncomfortable. The flight attendant reacted in this manner simply because extended nursing, when a baby nurses past a year old, is not the norm in United States culture. As a result, virtually any mother of a nursing toddler can recall dirty looks she has received while nursing in public and is likely to have horror stories of more confrontational judgments from strangers, like the mother on the plane.


Mothers in the US generally wean before twelve months, most at six months or earlier.  A mere 14% of mothers still nurse their babies at seven months of age (Le Leche League International 1997).  However, breast milk is the optimal food not only during infancy but also into toddler-hood, and if more mothers were aware of the benefits of extended nursing, they would not look at it as “weird” and would be proud to offer their baby the best nutrition possible.  U.S. culture, many American doctors, and the mainstream media discourage extended breastfeeding, in the process attaching shame and embarrassment to a natural feeding process that is extremely beneficial to the child’s well being.  

A child can only absorb 10% of the iron from cow’s milk, while 50% of the iron from breast milk’s can be absorbed (Eiger and Olds 1999).  Additionally, “human milk contains living cells, hormones, active enzymes, immunoglobulins and compounds with unique structures that cannot be replicated in infant formula" (Benson, Masor March 1994).   For this reason, when both mother and baby are healthy, the Food and Drug Administration, the Center for Disease Control, and the World Health Organization all advise nursing for a year or longer, as long as mother and baby are comfortable.

 Beyond the nutrient content of breast milk, extended nursing also provides a crucial boost to children’s immature immune systems. Until the age of six a child's immune system isn't functioning at adult level, which leads parents to shield them from sick neighbors, bundle them up during the winter, and make sure they don’t leave the house with a wet head.  Still, by nursing for a limited time, many mothers pass up the opportunity to directly provide young children with what it needs to fight off a cold or the flu. The composition of mother’s milk provides infants and toddlers with vitamin E, which is crucial for immune system development, along with enzymes, proteins and already developed antibodies that are essential to developing and maintaining good health. For this reason, breastfeeding has been directly associated with fewer infant illnesses, and extended breastfeeding subsequently with fewer toddler illnesses (Gluiuk 1996).

Not only does extended nursing have great health benefits, it also plays an important role in mother/child bonding and later social bonding. Extended breastfeeding gives mothers and toddlers special time to be together, experiencing each other’s closeness. Getting a toddler to slow down can be challenging, so the time spent nursing is needed and enjoyed. Oxytocin and Prolactin are released into the mother’s body during nursing,  Both hormones have been referred to as the "love hormones" or the "bonding hormones.”  Those hormones provide a sense of calm to the mother, promoting bonding and creating desire for further contact with the child.  

Adversaries to extended nursing suggest that extended nursing makes weaning more difficult and leads children to be overly dependent, therefore advocating that mother’s force their babies to wean on a set time frame.  In reality, forced weaning can be a frustrating experience for both, as it requires fighting biological instincts to continue nursing. On the other hand, child-led weaning tends to be much easier on the mother and toddler as all children will eventually give up the breast when they feel the cues to do so.  Often, they will set their own time frames, such as “when I’m four” or “after Santa comes.” 

There is evidence that child-led weaning is beneficial for the social development of children. Dr. William Sears (The Breastfeeding Book 2000), having studied the long-term impacts of the weaning process on thousands of children, reports that “children who had timely weanings… are more independent, gravitate to people more than things, are easier to discipline, experience less anger, radiate trust.… [After] studying the long-term effects of long-term breastfeeding, the most secure... and happy children we have seen are those who have not been weaned before their time” (Sears 2000).  Thus, despite what opponents of extended breastfeeding suggest, research on childhood development shows that toddlers who nurse will not be clingy and overly  dependent, and are actually likely to be more trusting, independent, and happier than children who are force-weaned.

Additionally, extended nursing benefits children in ways that extend all the way to school age. One study found that school age children who were breastfed as infants and toddlers have I.Q. scores averaging seven to ten points higher than formula-fed infants (Dr. Sears 2000). Breastfed babies and toddlers also have the privilege of receiving high levels of DHA (docasahexaenoic acid), which is a brain boosting fat, found in cold water fish and in seaweed.  DHA is essential for the proper development of the nervous system and vision (Memmler’s 2005). DHA levels are highest in babies who are breastfed the longest. The cognitive development of babies fed formula does not equal that of those who are breastfed (Dr. Sears 2000).  

Mothers who nurse their babies into toddler-hood are doing themselves and their little ones a great service physically, socially, intellectually and emotionally.  They are providing comfort and nourishment that will affect the children their entire lives. Breastfeeding is also a life-affirming act of love. If you have ever observed an older baby or toddler nursing, you can see that there is something almost magical, something very special about the mother/ child bond.  With such strong evidence of the positive effects of extended nursing, the pattern of limited breastfeeding in the United States is puzzling. 

1 comment:

Courtney said...

Colleen is also a Birthingway applicant for 2009.