Because more and more women are now breastfeeding their babies,
more and more are also finding that they enjoy breastfeeding enough
to want to continue longer than the usual few months they initially
thought they would do it. UNICEF has long encouraged breastfeeding
for two years and longer, and the
American Academy of Pediatrics is now on record as encouraging
mothers to nurse at least one year and as long after as both mother
and baby desire. Breastfeeding to 3 and 4 years of age has been
common in much of the world until recently, and breastfeeding toddlers
is still common in many societies.
Why should breastfeeding continue past six months?
Because mothers and babies often enjoy breastfeeding a lot. Why
stop an enjoyable relationship?
But it is said that breastmilk has no value after
Perhaps this is said, but it is wrong. That anyone can say such
a thing only shows how ignorant so many people in our society
are about breastfeeding. Breastmilk is, after all, milk. Even
after six months, it still contains protein, fat, and other nutritionally
important and appropriate elements which babies and children need.
Breastmilk still contains immunologic factors which help protect
the baby. In fact, some immune factors in breastmilk which protect
the baby against infection are present in greater amounts in the
second year of life than in the first. This is, of course as it
should be, since children older than a year are generally exposed
to more infection. Breastmilk still contains factors which help
the immune system to mature, and which help the brain, gut, and
other organs to develop and mature.
It has been well shown that children in daycare who are still
breastfeeding have far fewer and less severe infections than the
children who are not breastfeeding. The mother thus loses less
work time if she continues nursing her baby once she is back at
her paid work.
It is interesting that formula company marketing pushes the use
of formula (a rather imperfect copy of the real thing) for a year,
yet implies that breastmilk (from which the imperfect copy is
copied) is only worthwhile for 6 months. Too many health professionals
have taken up the refrain.
I have heard that the immunologic factors prevent
the baby from developing his own immunity if I breastfeed past six
This is untrue; in fact, this is absurd. It is unbelievable how
so many people in our society twist around the advantages of breastfeeding
and turn them into disadvantages. We give babies immunizations
so that they are able to defend themselves against the real infection.
Breastmilk also allows the baby to be fight off infections. When
the baby fights off these infections, he becomes immune. Naturally.
But I want my baby to become independent.
And breastfeeding makes the toddler dependent? Donít believe
it. The child who breastfeeds until he weans himself (usually
from 2 to 4 years), is generally more independent, and, perhaps
more imporatantly, more secure in his independence. He has received
comfort and security from the breast, until he is ready to make
the step himself to stop. And when he makes that step himself,
he knows he has achieved something, he knows he has moved ahead.
It is a milestone in his life.
Often we push children to become "independent" too quickly. To
sleep alone too soon, to wean from the breast too soon, to do
without their parents too soon, to do everything too soon. Donít
push and the child will become independent soon enough. Whatís
the rush? Soon they will be leaving home. You want them to leave
home at 14?
Of course, breastfeeding can, in some situations, be used to
foster an overdependent relationship. But so can food and toilet
training. The problem is not the breastfeeding. This is another
Possibly the most important aspect of nursing a toddler is not
the nutritional or immunologic benefits, important as they are.
I believe the most important aspect of nursing a toddler is the
special relationship between child and mother. Breastfeeding is
a life affirming act of love. This continues when the baby becomes
a toddler. Anyone without prejudices, who has ever observed an
older baby or toddler nursing can testify that there is something
almost magical, something special, something far beyond food going
on. A nursing toddler will sometimes spontaneously break into
laughter for no obvious reason. His delight in the breast goes
far beyond a source of food. And if the mother allows herself,
breastfeeding becomes a source of delight for her as well, far
beyond the pleasure of providing food. Of course, itís not always
great, but what is? But when it is, it makes it all so worthwhile.
And if the child does become ill or does get hurt (and they do
as they meet other children and become more daring), what easier
way to comfort the child than breastfeeding? I remember nights
in the emergency department when mothers would walk their ill,
non nursing babies or toddlers up and down the halls trying, often
unsuccessfully, to console them, while the nursing mothers were
sitting quietly with their comforted, if not necessarily happy,
babies at the breast. The mother comforts the sick child with
breastfeeding, and the child comforts the mother by breastfeeding.
Handout #21. Toddler nursing. January 1998
Breastfeed a Toddler - Why on Earth?
Written by Jack Newman, MD, FRCPC
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