by Heidi Green
October 09, 2012
Yes! Breastfeeding provides both nutrition and nurturing. The need for the latter doesn’t diminish just because your baby develops the ability eat other foods. If you choose a child-led path to weaning, your child breastfeeds at his own pace and you follow his lead.
Anthropologist Katherine Dettwyler, PhD, author of Breastfeeding: Biological Perspectives and adjunct professor at the University of Delaware, is widely considered to be the foremost authority on the topic of weaning. She writes in “A Natural Age of Weaning”:
In societies where children are allowed to nurse “as long as they want” they usually self-wean with no arguments or emotional trauma, between 3 and 4 years of age. … The minimum predicted age for a natural age of weaning in humans is 2.5 years, with a maximum of 7.0 years.
However, according to 2009 data, just over one-quarter of U.S. babies are still being breastfed at 12 months of age. (Data are not available for how long these babies continue.)
We don’t know the health benefits of breast milk for the toddler or older child; studies on breastfeeding past two years have simply not been done. However, we do know that there is no evidence of physical, emotional, or psychological harm to infants who nurse longer.
One full year is the minimum length of breastfeeding recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), which acknowledges that breastfeeding can continue “as mutually desired by mother and infant.” Two years or more is the standard of the World Health Organization (WHO), and the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) also notes the importance of nursing until age 2, stating that breastfeeding “beyond the first year offers considerable benefits to both mother and child, and should continue for as long as mutually desired … If the child is younger than two years of age, the child is at increased risk of illness if weaned.”
Some mothers may choose to encourage weaning (mother-led weaning) by providing liquid alternatives (water, cow’s milk, or juice), distracting their child with other activities at their usual nursing times, or setting limits on each nursing session. However, if a mother does not initiate weaning, the child eventually will. As the child grows, he will naturally reduce the number of times he seeks to nurse each day until, eventually, he has weaned.
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