The Importance and Benefits of Extended Breastfeeding
2 Weeks ago my baby boy turned 3, but that was not our only milestone. In fact, we hit another great milestone together that day, because 2 weeks ago also marked 3 years of breastfeeding for us. Those who have followed us from the start will know that our breastfeeding journey has not been an easy one, in fact I feel that one of the biggest breastfeeding myths are that “breastfeeding is easy or should be easy”. No, breastfeeding might be natural, BUT it is hard and it challenges you in more ways than you could ever imagine, but it is also so so rewarding. The first few months of my breastfeeding journey were filled with a lot of blood, sweat and tears, but you can read more about our journey in our blogpost My breastfeeding rollercoaster https://letterstomywildling.com/2019/06/03/our-breastfeeding-rollercoaster/. One of the things I have learned and still apply to our breastfeeding journey is that 1. Support is everything – your support system will carry you or sink you and 2. Knowledge is key, because there will always be that someone who knows “better”.
Within our three years of breastfeeding the one thing I have probably heard the most is “when are you going to stop breastfeeding him” or “isn’t he too old to still be drinking from you”, but it never stopped there. The other day I walked into a certain healthcare shop for some vitamins and left feeling humiliated after a staff member practically shouted out loud “what 3? Why is he still drinking on your breasts at age 3!” I have realized that there are some, okay maybe a ton of misconceptions when it comes to breastfeeding past the age of 1, with the main one being that breastfeeding no longer serves a purpose or hold any benefits once a baby reaches the age of 1. This is the reason for this post, to hopefully educate people on the facts behind extended breastfeeding, to place them in a better position to support and love moms who are still breastfeeding their toddlers, because, believe it or not, we still need the support of our families and friends. I also hope that this blogpost could support and encourage moms who are feeling a little overwhelmed or discouraged with their breastfeeding journeys.
I have chosen extended breastfeeding and this is why:
Let’s start at the beginning.
What is extended breastfeeding:
According to the World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF it is recommended that children are exclusively breastfed for the first 6 months of a child’s life, which means no other foods or liquids are introduced within those first 6 months. Then it is recommended that from the age of 6 months, children should begin eating safe and adequate complementary foods while continuing to breastfeed for up to 2 years old. Extended breastfeeding generally means breastfeeding past the age of 2, but in some western countries it even means breastfeeding past the age of 12 months, depending on the culture.
Why is extended breastfeeding important?
A lot of people believe that breastfeeding after the age of 1or 2 has no benefits for either mother or child and that it’s just a convenience for us, but this couldn’t have been further from the truth. Breastmilk continues to be a source of nutrients for your child, even beyond the age of 2. A UNICEF Report that were entitled Preventing Disease and Saving Resources, were published on the 18th of October 2012 and sets out ways in which the longer a baby is breastfed the greater the health benefits for both mother and child. See, a child’s immune system takes between 2-6 years to fully mature, and human milk continues to boost and complement the child’s immune system for as long as it is offered. Research on the incidence of illness in breastfed and weaned toddlers reflects these dynamics, and I can definitely speak for this myself. Aryan, being a prem baby has had trouble with his lungs for as long as I can remember. A simple cold usually went straight to his lungs, and he was sick more than healthy for the first 18 months of his life. At times I felt hopeless and I really didn’t believe in the “facts” that breastfeeding boosts the immune systems – how is it that my child seemed to be first in line to catch any and everything doing the rounds then? It wasn’t until I compared the degree of his “illnesses” to those of family and friends that I realized the truth in this statement. Even though Aryan has been so very sick, with some very serious illnesses, we have never had the need to have him admitted into hospital, and his recovery was much much faster as well. Until today I am a big believer in that breastmilk is an incredible remedy for almost anything. The other important aspect that I feel people so easily forget is the fact that breastfeeding is so much more than just food. To a breastfeeding toddler a mother’s breast is a source of comfort, and security just like many other toddlers have dummies, a special blanket or teddy, a bottle or a “doek”. Norma Bumganer says it so beautifully in her book mothering your nursing toddler: “ “Breastfeeding can provide feelings of love, comfort, and protection. When a mother makes herself available to nurse her child through a situation that he can’t handle alone, he will likely develop independence based on faith that mother will be there to help. Allowing a toddler to nurse (or wean) at his own pace is an expression of trust that contributes to his self-esteem”. I still do not get how everyone is okay with how a child develops differently in all other aspects, but when it comes to breastfeeding there HAS to be a cutoff date…
So, now that we know what extended breastfeeding is and understand that it has a purpose that goes way beyond only offering a breast for convenience, we can actually have a look at some of the benefits of extended breastfeeding:
1. Breastfeeding continues to be a source of nutrition, even for toddlers
Regardless of how old your child is he/she will continue to benefit from the protein, fat, vitamin A, and other nutrients that breastmilk contains. According to parents.com (https://www.parents.com/baby/breastfeeding/tips/benefits-of-extended-breastfeeding/) Weiss compares the nutritional value of breastfeeding to that of vegetables, for example spinach. The amount of spinach you eat does not take away from its nutritional value, whether its your first serving or your 1000th , spinach is still good for you. According to kellymom.com(https://kellymom.com/ages/older-infant/ebf-benefits/) “Human milk in the second year postpartum has been found to contain significantly higher concentrations of total protein, lactoferrin, lysozyme and Immunoglobulin A, than milk bank samples, and human milk expressed by mothers who have been lactating for more than 1 year has significantly increased fat and energy contents, compared with milk expressed by women who have been lactating for shorter periods. In a study of 250 toddlers in western Kenya, breastmilk provided, on average, 32% of the child’s total energy intake. “Breast milk made an important contribution to the fat and vitamin A intakes of toddlers in this community.”
— Onyango 2002. Breast milk also continues to provide substantial amounts of key nutrients well beyond the first year of life, especially protein, fat, and most vitamins.”
— Dewey 200. The amazing thing about breastmilk is that the composition of breastmilk changes as your baby gets older, so it will always have the perfect nutrients for your child no matter their age. It’s incredible to think about really – it’s amazing how our bodies “just know” what our toddlers need and when they need it. Breastmilk also contains a large variety of hormones, proteins, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals. Evidence also shows that breastfed toddlers tend to have stronger vision, since the eye is similar to the brain in regards with nervous tissue, and breastfeeding provides up to 75% of a toddler’s vitamin A requirements. Vitamin A is needed by the retina of the eye and is necessary for both low light and colour vision. Breastfeeding is also better for a toddler’s teeth since thumb-sucking is less likely to occur in breastfed toddlers and therefore their teeth are less likely to become misaligned. An increased duration of nursing also improves the dental arch. Extended breastfeeding is also great for strengthening a toddler’s bones, since in only 12 months of breastfeeding 36% of a toddler’s calcium requirements have been met in its most natural form. Breastfed toddlers are also less likely to be fussy eaters, but even if they do go through a fussy period, their taste buds are still stimulated by the range of flavours in their mother’s milk and they still receive the extra nutrients that they would otherwise not receive while refusing certain food types. Breastfeeding has definitely been a source of relief at times when Aryan was sick and feeling poorly. I can still remember the times when Aryan was sick with horrible tummy bugs and refused to eat or drink anything other than his “boobies”. Not only did it offer him comfort while he felt poorly, it also ensured that he still got all the nutrients he needed, stopped him from dehydrating and the antibodies in my milk helped his body fight the virus all simultaneously.
2. Breastfeeding boosts the immune system
Interestingly the immunity benefits actually increase the longer your baby breastfeeds. Weiss said the following:”The longer you breastfeed, the less likely your baby is to have some of the illnesses that we associate with not breastfeeding, like ear infections and upper respiratory infections”. Research also shows that breastfed toddlers tend to have better hearing due to the lower incidence of ear infections.The American Academy of Family Physicians also noted that children that were weaned before two years of age were at an increased risk of illness (AAFP 2008), and that breastfeeding toddlers between the ages of 1 and 3 years old have been found to have had fewer illnesses, illnesses with shorter duration as well as lower mortality rates. It was also proven that antibodies are abundant in human milk throughout lactation and that some of the immune factors in breastmilk even increased in concentration during the second year and even the weaning process.The WHO also states: “a modest increase in breastfeeding rates could prevent up to 10% of all deaths of children under five: Breastfeeding plays an essential and sometimes underestimated role in the treatment and prevention of childhood illness.” (reference: https://kellymom.com/ages/older-infant/ebf-benefits/). Breastfeeding has also proven to help prevent allergies, and therefore it has been proven that in continuing to breastfeed your child when he/she starts eating potentially allergenic foods could actually protect your child if he/she comes from a family susceptible to allergies.
3. Breastfeeding boosts brain development
Extensive research on the relationship between cognitive achievement (IQ scores, grades in school) and breastfeeding has shown the greatest gains for those children breastfed the longest.
4. Breastfeeding is a source of comfort and security
Eventhough all the other points mentioned are all incredibly important, this is the point I want to stress the most. Breastfeeding builds and strengthens intimacy, security, comfort, affection and trust between a mother and her child, as well as an emotional connection between a mother and her child. Breastfeeding remains a precious and dear source of comfort and security for breastfeeding toddlers. Nursing your toddler helps them through the fears and frustrations that comes with every stage they need to go through and acts as a tool of instant calming and connection – for both mother and child. Breastfeeding your toddler builds a door of trust, which he knows are wide open for whenever your child feels angry, frustrated, tired, sad or stressed. Your toddler knows he can come to you no matter what and he will feel safe, protected and loved.
5. Promotes independence
While a mother breastfeeds, a mother meets the child’s dependency needs, and this is the key to helping the child achieve independence. Children who achieve independence in their own time and at their own pace are more secure in their independence than the children who were forced into independence prematurely. Many people believe that when you breastfeed for so long you are spoiling your child and producing a clingy child who is dependant on you, but in natural fact the opposite is true. No, through providing your child with an unrestricted and loving source of security, you are creating the ideal base from which they can explore the world and build their own independence, without throwing them out of the nest before they are ready.
Although extended breastfeeding has many benefits for the child, of which I only mentioned a few, it also has some amazing benefits for the mother, like:
1. A reduced chance of getting breast cancer
In fact Laura Sayce a Johannesburg based Lactation consultant states that a mother who breastfeeds for 3 years or more reduces her risk of breast cancer by 94%!
2. Reduces a mothers risk of ovarian cancer and endometrial cancer
3. Breastfeeding can protect the mother against osteoporosis and it reduces the risk of rheumatoid arthritis
4. Breastfeeding also reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease in mothers
And last (for now) but definitely NOT the least
5. Breastfeeding can act as a source of calmness and stress relief for a mother.
Moms, another thing I have learned in our journey is that it is important to take care of yourself and your mental health too. Remember breastfeeding a toddler is not the same as breastfeeding an infant. It is okay to set boundaries, it is okay to set rules – communicate with your toddler and enjoy every moment, because you most probably won’t even know when you’re feeding him/her for the last time.
Look, I am not saying that extended breastfeeding is the answer to all of life’s problems, but what I am trying to say is that just because it does not fit the “perfect picture” society wants to paint, does not mean mothers need to be condemned for it. These are only a few of the reasons why some mothers might choose to allow their children to wean by themselves and when they are ready. I just feel that no mother should ever be pressured or feel pressured to stop doing something that is beneficial to both her and her child. The time to wean is different for every child and every family, the same way it is for every child who still walks around with a dummy, bottle, blankie or doek and the same way that every child potty trains differently or sleeps through the night differently. It remains the mother’s choice and she should be supported, rather than crucified. It takes a village…
I find what Deanna Decker said so true. She said “we live in a society where a mother catches less hell for giving her toddler a coke than she does for giving her toddler breastmilk. I am working to change that in my lifetime.” And that is the purpose of this blogpost – to educate and support.
When I am asked when I’m weaning Aryan, I honestly never know what to say. I do not know when he will be ready, I don’t know when I will be ready, and I do not know if we’ll be ready together. I guess, the best answer will be “only time will tell, but definitely not today”. I treasure each and every moment we still have, I still look down at his beautiful face and long lashes as he falls asleep on me, I still enjoy it when our eyes meet and the corner of his mouth turns into a little grin and he then bursts out giggling. I still love it when I’m the only person he wants at bedtime, I still stand in awe at the way his “boobie” can calm him and heal any kind of pain. I live in these moments, because I know our time is running out and soon there will be no more. Time flies…
I’d like to conclude this blogpost with the following quote:
Not because I think less of formula feeding moms.
Not because I want attention.
Not because I want to show my breasts to others.
Not because I am lazy.
Because I couldn’t imagine it any other way.
Because my child wants to be nourished from me.
Because this is what nature intended.
Because this was the right choice for MY child and MY family.
Aryan & Mommy