How long should children really breastfeed for?
There’s no right or wrong answer here, every breastfeeding dyad will reach the end of their journey when they’re ready. Sometimes a parent may be ready before a child is (parent-led weaning) and other times a child will be able to wean when they’re both physically, mentally and emotionally ready to do so (child-led weaning also called natural weaning). This may be at different ages for different individuals. Breastfeeding should continue for a long as both mother and baby mutually desires to do so. Natural weaning is best when it’s possible. For the sake of this article, we will go into more detail about child-led/natural weaning.
What is natural weaning?
Natural weaning (infant-led weaning) occurs as the infant begins to accept increasing amounts and different types of complementary feedings while still breastfeeding on demand. As they need less milk and become less dependent on the mother, they will start breastfeeding less over a period of months and years until finally and very slowly coming to a complete stop.
What does the health organizations recommend?
Updated AAP guidance continues to recommend exclusive breastfeeding for six months, with complementary foods introduced around six months. Under the new policy, the AAP now supports continued breastfeeding until two years or beyond, as mutually desired by mother and child.
WHO and UNICEF recommendations:
The WHO and UNICEF both recommend:
The early initiation of breastfeeding within 1 hour of birth;
Exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months of life; and
The introduction of nutritionally-adequate and safe complementary (solid) foods at 6 months together with continued breastfeeding up to 2 years of age or beyond.
What does the research say?
Studies have found that the average age of weaning in human babies are between the ages of 2.5 and 7 years, with the average being 4-5 years old. Some may even breastfeed for longer than that. It’s very rare for a child to wean before that, and if they do it may be because of external interferences such as pacifiers and the mother either knowingly or unknowingly, using weaning techniques.
2-7 years old! You ask in utter shock! Yes, 2-7 years old are perfectly normal ages for children to still be breastfeeding.
Why for so long you ask? Surely the milk can no longer be nutritious to the child. Surely, it’s purely a bad habit now? Wrong. Breastfeeding is incredibly important at all ages.
What does breastfeeding offer an older child?
Breastmilk will never not be nutritious to a child, in fact, the composition changes as the child ages to offer them exactly what they need at that specific stage of life. They will eventually need food as their main source of nutrition, but don’t underestimate how much needed water (hydration), vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, protein and fat breastmilk offers to a child at any given age.
It goes well past nutritional value only though; it offers children great protection from a range of illnesses. As we all know, breastmilk offers both active and passive immunity to children. It protects against otitis media, obesity, diabetes, respiratory and cardiovascular disease and even cancer. When a mother or her child comes into contact with bacteria or viruses, the breasts will automatically start producing milk full of antibodies to fight of that very specific illness. Breastfeeding toddlers between the ages of one and three have been found to have fewer illnesses, illnesses of shorter duration, and lower mortality rates.
Intellectual, mental and social development benefits
The majority of research studies examining breastfeeding and long-term neurodevelopmental outcomes suggest that children who breastfeed for longer than 6 months have better cognitive outcomes, lower risk of developing attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, and lower risk of being diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. Breastfeeding is related to improved performance in intelligence tests. A positive effect of breastfeeding on cognition was also observed in a randomized trial.
Breastfeeding is also thought to facilitate maternal sensitivity and secure attachment between mother and child. There is research to show that mothers who breastfeed tend to touch their infants more, are more responsive to their infants, and spend more time in mutual gaze with infants during feedings than bottle-feeding mother–infant dyads do. Moreover, in a prospective longitudinal study of 675 mother–infant dyads, increased duration of breastfeeding was associated with maternal sensitive responsiveness, increased attachment security, and decreased attachment disorganization when infants were 14 months of age. Brain imaging work also provides evidence for a positive influence of breastfeeding on the mother–child relationship. For example, in a functional MRI (fMRI) study, it was found that exclusively breastfeeding mothers exhibited greater brain activation in several limbic brain regions when listening to their own infant’s cries as compared to exclusive formula feeders, suggesting greater involvement of emotional brain systems in breastfeeding mothers.
Benefits for mothers
There are many benefits in extended breastfeeding, including health benefits to the mother. This includes reduced risks of osteoporosis, rheumatoid arthritis, decreased insulin requirements for mothers with existing diabetes, decreased risk of type 2 diabetes, decreased risk of cardiovascular disease, ovarian, uterine and breast cancer.
Studies show that for every 12 months that a mother breastfeeds for, she has a 4.3% reduced risk of breast cancer.
Natural term breastfeeding should be normalized
More often than not, mothers choosing the natural weaning route receives a great amount of shaming and judgement for breastfeeding an older child. This causes what we call closet breastfeeding, which is when a mother and child only breastfeeds in private and never let anyone other than certain family members know. This doesn’t seem fair that a mother who does something that is completely biologically normal and healthy, receives no support whatsoever. Shaming and judgement usually comes from the uninformed, people just don’t know any better. They never see this in public, therefore it’s not very normalized.
What can we do to make a change?
Education is key, not just for parents, but for everyone else too. If people understand the importance of breastfeeding a child for a longer period, they may judge less. As the famous saying goes, people judge what they don’t understand.
If you’re a mother who breastfeeds an older child, never feel ashamed of what you’re doing, you’re not doing anything wrong, you’re doing everything absolutely right. If you feel comfortable with breastfeeding in public, then you should do just that. Not only are you making you and your child’s life easier, but you’re also directly helping normalizing breastfeeding to the world. You’re also inspiring other mothers of older children to embrace her journey and to never be ashamed of what she does.