The cover of Time Magazine last week had a picture of a woman nursing her three-year-old child to raise awareness of breastfeeding and get people talking about it. It worked, perhaps better than they anticipated. The tactic was employed and completely justified because breastfeeding rates in America are very low, due to our weird American hang-ups that can’t reconcile the dual purposes of breasts. As Dr. Sears said, the real purpose of the human breast is for nurturing a child, not selling cars and beer.
The World Health Organization, UNICEF, and the Canadian Pediatric Society, among others, recommend breastfeeding for at least two years, and beyond, as long as both the mother and child desire. What should be more individualized than a childhood, and a mother/child relationship? There is no evidence that continued breastfeeding is harmful nor that it is advantageous to wean a child before he is ready.
It’s the norm – in other cultures and in other species
The history of breastfeeding and humanity speaks for itself. There shouldn’t need to be a discussion. If your great-grandmothers didn’t breastfeed, you wouldn’t be here. It’s what’s normal. Name one other mammal that doesn’t do it. You can’t.
Some “experts” in the news responded to the Time article, taking aim at “attachment parenting” (which was just parenting in the old days) and other past norms it calls “extreme” including breastfeeding beyond infancy, calling it “a prescription for psychological disaster” that may cause “destructive psychosexual problems.”
Yet in many countries children are commonly breastfed for several years. In places like Mongolia, children need the nourishment longer due to limitations of a nomadic lifestyle, and may nurse to as old as 6 years. In America, we are raising the first generation that is expected to have a shorter lifespan than their parents. With the imploding health of our nation, it’s time to get people thinking about what can be done to fix it, and breastfeeding is one thing that can make a big difference. In places like Belgium, The Netherlands and Finland, where more than half of all children are breastfed for multiple years, the life expectancy is still increasing.
Scientists that studied 135 species of primates (including humans) recorded and analyzed variables including litter size, age at weaning to adult female body weight, and length of estrus. Their comprehensive data found strong correlation between female body weight and offspring weaning age. The calculation they came up with predicts, with a 91% success rate, that knowing the female’s body weight predicts the offspring’s weaning age. Apply that calculation to humans, and it determines that humans should have an average weaning age of between 2.8 and 3.7 years old.
Benefits for mother and child
Research shows that the content of breast milk changes as the child ages, naturally addressing the increased need for more fat and energy. It adapts to the toddlers developing system, providing the right nutrition at the right time. Unlike cow milk, which can cause digestive challenges and even allergies, human milk is custom made for that child’s needs, that day. If she gets sick, she’s getting antibodies from the milk before mom knows she’s ill. The immunological benefits increase during the second and third years of nursing. Thousands of antiviral, antibacterial and antiparasitic antibodies protect against things like E. coli, pneumonia, step throat, salmonella, influenza, rotavirus, rubella, West Nile virus, allergies, asthma, mumps, measles, diabetes, meningitis and many cancers. Nursing children get sick less often, and heal quicker.
Breastfeeding is a source of comfort, support and security. The accessible nature of their mother’s attention due to the breastfeeding relationship, combined with the hormonal benefits of consistent (loving) physical contact translates to an independence and security that comes from a deep-seated attachment. Strongly attached children are more empathetic and compassionate, easier to discipline, relate better to people and have a higher IQ. These are not children that are bullies. The physical workings of breastfeeding actually promotes oral development and enhances language skills.
Benefits to mother include emotional well-being due to the milk-making hormones, as well as less stress and less incidence of postpartum depression. The length of time a woman breastfeeds is linked to lowered risks of many cancers, diabetes and arthritis. Other benefits include natural birth control, easier parenting and a built in ability to soothe your child. It’s faster and inexpensive also.
Parents that employ the tenants of attachment parenting, including extended breastfeeding, generally find it validating as it empowers them to trust their instincts, often over what well-meaning doctors and family members steeped in the western culture of a fear-based, medicated approach to health advise. There is nothing extreme or indulgent in giving your child a greater chance of growing up happier, healthier and smarter.