by Jenny Hontz
February 28, 2012
Before I became a mom, I was shocked to learn that one of my close friends breastfed her son for 2 1/2 years. I had never heard of anyone nursing a child for so long. I questioned whether she was having a hard time letting go of his infancy, and I wondered whether long-term breastfeeding might cause her son psychological harm. Now, just a few years later, my own son, who recently turned 2, is slowly weaning himself but still breastfeeding 2–3 times a day.
Being exposed to someone practicing extended breastfeeding—and seeing her son grow into a sweet, bright, well-adjusted boy—opened my mind and prompted me to do a little research. What I discovered is that breastfeeding through the toddler years was not only the norm throughout human history but remains so today in many cultures around the world. My own father-in-law, who was born in China, breastfed for five years.
The United Nations Children’s Fund estimates that 49 percent of children worldwide are breastfed for 1–2 years. But only 23 percent of American children are still breastfeeding at age 1, and that number drops to 8 percent at 18 months, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Weaning ages vary widely for the small percentage of long-term breastfeeders. A 1995 study of such mothers in the U.S. found the average weaning age was between 2 1/2 to 3 years and ranged all the way up to 7 years, 4 months.
Although nursing beyond infancy is atypical in the United States (U.S.) today, the practice is endorsed by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the World Health Organization (WHO), and UNICEF. In fact WHO and UNICEF urge mothers to breastfeed for at least two years, with complementary foods added after six months of exclusive breastfeeding. The AAP believes breastfeeding should continue for at least a year and as long as mutually desired by the mother and child.
“Increased duration of breastfeeding confers significant health and developmental benefits for the child and the mother,” says the AAP’s breastfeeding policy paper. “There is no upper limit to the duration of breastfeeding and no evidence of psychologic or developmental harm from breastfeeding into the third year of life or longer.”
The health benefits of extended breastfeeding are tough to dispute. Immunological factors in breast milk continue to help children fight infection beyond 2 years of age, and long-term breastfeeding is associated with a lower risk of childhood obesity and Type 2 diabetes, not to mention higher IQs.
The benefits for mothers are just as impressive. The longer mothers breastfeed, for instance, the more they reduce their risk of breast cancer. A 2002 review of 47 epidemiological studies from 30 countries published in the Journal Lancet shows the risk of breast cancer declines 4.3 percentage points for every 12 months of breastfeeding. The incidence of breast cancer in developed countries would be reduced by more than half if mothers breastfed as long as mothers in developing countries.
There are emotional benefits to extended breastfeeding too. Nursing provides a quiet, close time for mothers and children to bond, and breastfeeding can help calm toddlers during emotional upsets.
Nevertheless, practicing extended breastfeeding in the U.S. can be challenging given the lack of societal approval. Because our culture treats the female breast as a sexual object rather than a means to produce and deliver milk to children, mothers often receive subtle and overt pressure to wean early from friends, family, and even doctors. As a result, many women who continue nursing past infancy stop breastfeeding in public—a phenomenon called “closet nursing.” (You can read more about this here, here, and here.)
Most states have laws specifically allowing mothers to breastfeed in public, although women still face hostility. In 2011, the city council of Forest Park, Georgia, passed a law restricting public breastfeeding to children over age 2. After 300 breastfeeding women and their supporters staged a “nurse-in” at City Hall, however, the city council backed down and dropped the nursing age limit from its public indecency ordinance.
While I certainly never planned to breastfeed for this long, our pediatrician said my son needed some form of milk for at least two years. He never took to cow’s milk, and why should he? The way I look at it now: Cow’s milk was designed for cows. Breast milk is for humans. So if my child needs milk, why shouldn’t I keep giving him what nature intended?
Jenny Hontz is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer, yogi, and mom.
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