Everyone is familiar with the phrase “breast is best” and many new moms do attempt to breastfeed at birth. For those that make it past the challenging first days when colostrum turns to milk, breastfeeding then becomes a goal, an obsession even: I need to make it to 6 months. In my case, I was willing to contact a milk bank if I needed to. That’s how serious I was.
But what happens after 6 months? Many pediatricians suggest breastfeeding until the 1 year mark, but many mothers decide to stop well before then. As a matter of fact, the number of breastfeeding mothers drops by more than half.
It is interesting to note that not only is the U.S. pretty low on this chart, well behind Sweden, Norway, Poland, and Canada, but that for most of these countries, the percentage of women who continue breastfeeding past 6 months is extremely low. The reasons vary: going back to work, needing to get their lives back on track, the myth that starting solids means that breastmilk is no longer needed, the stigma of nursing an infant/toddler in public and what people will think…
Below is a breakdown of the benefits, from birth to 12 months:
Breastfeeding until the 1 month mark
- You provide your baby with colostrum, referred to as baby’s ‘first vaccine’. According to Breastfeeding Basics, “it protects the newborn from infection by coating the baby’s intestinal tract and acting as a barrier to prevent the invasion of harmful bacteria”. It also acts as a laxative (cleans out meconium, the dark stool that baby’s intestines form before birth) and reduces the incidence of jaundice
- When your milk comes in within the first week, it provides antibodies for your baby.
- The protein in breast milk is much easier to digest than the protein in formula, making your baby less likely to suffer from digestive problems.
- According to Breastfeeding Basics, “babies who are breastfed have lower rates of many illnesses, including digestive and respiratory problems, pneumonia and meningitis, and SIDS.”
Breastfeeding until the 6 month mark
- Babies who were exclusively breastfed for at least four months had half as many ear infections as formula fed babies.
- Your baby will be much less likely to have allergies.
- Breastfeeding for at least six months has been shown to protect against many illnesses, such as childhood cancers.
Breastfeeding until the 9 month mark
- Even though an older baby has begun solids, breast milk is still the most important part of his diet. It protects him/her from germs as he/she begins to crawl and put everything in his/her mouth.
- According to Breastfeeding Basics, breastfeeding may have beneficial effects on a baby’s intellectual development: “breastfed babies score an average of 8 points higher on IQ tests than formula-fed babies, and this seems to hold true even when things like parent’s educational and socioeconomic backgrounds are factored in.”
Breastfeeding until the 12 month mark
- Long-term nursing protects against “ulcerative colitis, diabetes, asthma, Crohn’s disease, obesity, and high cholesterol in adulthood.” They are also less likely to need speech therapy or have dental problems later in life.
- The concentration of antibodies in human milk becomes more concentrated as the volume they consume goes down.
- Research shows that children who are breastfed long term tend to be more secure and independent. The reasoning behind this is that they have had their needs met during the vulnerable period of infancy.
Breastfeeding past the 12 month mark
- Baby continues to get immunological advantages of human milk during a time when he is increasingly exposed to infection and germs.
- After 1 year, human milk has more fat and energy contents, compared with human milk before 1 year (growing babies NEED the extra fat & especially human cholesterol!)
- In the second year (12-23 months), 448 mL of breastmilk provides (Dewey 2001): 29% of energy requirements, 43% of protein requirements,36% of calcium requirements,75% of vitamin A requirements,76% of folate requirements, 94% of vitamin B12 requirements, 60% of vitamin C requirements . Note that this is exactly what baby humans need; cow’s milk is designed to grow baby cows which have smaller brains per body mass (bestforbabes.org)
- Nursing toddlers (between the ages of 16 and 30 months) have been found to have fewer illnesses and illnesses of shorter duration than their non-nursing peers (Gulick 1986).
- Some of the immune factors in breast milk increase in concentration during the second year and also during the weaning process. (Goldman 1983, Goldman & Goldblum 1983, Institute of Medicine 1991).
- Breastfeeding toddlers (babies > 1 year), helps them learn to self-soothe and self-regulate, manage frustrations (some parents report avoiding the “terrible twos” altogether) and lessens pain from bumps and bruises (breastmilk contains analgesics, i.e. natural pain-killers) (bestforbabes.org).
- Breastfeeding toddlers (babies > 1 year) helps them make a gradual transition to childhood. Children who achieve independence at their own pace are more secure in that independence then children forced into independence prematurely (bestforbabes.org)
Interesting fact: Nursing is a great way to comfort a crying, hurt, sick, or frightened toddler. As a matter of fact, a sick child will accept breastmilk when he/she refuses other foods. Think about it: is there a better way to ease a temper tantrum or put a cranky child to sleep than by nursing him?
If you think that nursing doesn’t have as many benefits after the first year, remember that breastmilk never becomes less nutritious… It evolves to meet the needs of the child it’s nourishing. And with a child who is now in daycare, in contact with other children, crawling, touching, putting everything in his/her mouth… The immunity is actually more important than ever.
If you’re afraid that nursing may “spoil” your child and make him less independent because of it, think again. Dr. Sears wrote, “We have studied the long-term effects on thousands of children who had timely weanings and have observed that these children 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.”
If you’re nervous about your newly-speaking toddler “asking” for the breast or saying “thank you” after a feed, I don’t really get your reasoning. Don’t you encourage your baby to ask for a bottle when hungry? If your child asked for regular food, would you have the same reaction? Babies learn to ask because feedings are a big part of their day. It doesn’t make any sense at all to punish them by cutting off the thing they’ve learned to ask for. Besides, I can’t think of anything sweeter than my baby saying “thank you” after a warm, cuddly feed 🙂
And what about mom? According to Breastfeeding Basics, many of the benefits of breastfeeding are dose-related. This means that the longer a mom breastfeeds over the course of her lifetime, the lower her risk of breast cancer, ovarian cancer, uterine cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, heart disease, and osteoporosis (just as the risk of childhood cancers decrease for the child as well.) This is huge!
As for me, I am becoming more and more open to nursing past the 1 year mark if we make it to that point and Liam isn’t ready to stop yet. I don’t know how long I’d be willing to keep it up, but I want him to set the pace for weaning, rather than going through the unpleasant process of weaning him before he is naturally ready… Besides, it is important to remember that once solids are introduced, the weaning process has technically begun (take that, people with unsolicited advice!)
If your baby isn’t ready to stop nursing before the 1 year mark, then maybe he still needs it. According to Best For Babes, “in cultures where mothers and babies are not pressured to wean prematurely, babies self-wean naturally between 2.5 and 7 years of age, with most babies self-weaning around age 3 or 4.”
Nursing a 1-2 year old may not be widely accepted by our society (although it is in a lot of places around the world), but why does it matter what people think if your child benefits from it?
Think about it… Is there really anything negative about it besides the stigma of breastfeeding a child past infancy?
Honestly, part of the responsibility of being a mom is knowing how to prioritize what is right for your family and ignoring the negativity that you are sometimes surrounded with. If it works for you and your baby, then why feel pressured to wean because society says it’s time to stop?
Note: Breastfeeding for any amount of time is already a good thing. Every mom is different and has different priorities and needs. I am in no way shaming those who do not breastfeed past 6 months, or any amount of time. I am also not fully decided on breastfeeding past infancy myself. This is simply research about a topic that I wish was more widespread, and less controversial.