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Breastfeed a Toddler Why on Earth?

Written by Jack Newman, MD, FRCPC   
Thursday, 01 December 2005 00:00
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More and more women are now breastfeeding their babies, and many are also finding that they enjoy breastfeeding enough to want to continue longer than the usual few months they initially intended to breastfeed.

UNICEF has long encouraged breastfeeding for two years and longer, and the American Academy of Pediatrics is now on record encouraging mothers to nurse at least one year and as long after that as both mother and baby desire. Even the Canadian Paediatric Society, in its latest feeding statement, acknowledges that women may want to breastfeed for two years or longer. Breastfeeding to three and four years of age was common in much of the world until recently, and it is still common in many societies for toddlers to breastfeed.

Why should breastfeeding continue past six months? Because mothers and babies often find breastfeeding enjoyable. Why stop an enjoyable relationship? And continued breastfeeding is even good for the health and welfare of both the mother and child.

It is said that breast milk has no value after six months. This is wrong. That anyone (including pediatricians) can say such a thing only shows how ignorant many people in our society are about breastfeeding. Breast milk is, after all, milk. Even after six months, it still contains protein, fat, and other nutritionally important and appropriate elements which babies and children need. Breast milk still contains immunologic factors that help protect the baby. In fact, some immune factors in breast milk that protect the baby against infection are present in greater amounts in the second year of life than in the first. This is, of course, as it should be, since children older than one year are generally exposed to more infection. Breast milk continues to provide factors that help the immune system to mature and help the brain, gut, and other organs to develop and mature.

It has been shown that children in daycare who are still breastfeeding have far fewer and less severe infections than the children who are not breastfeeding. The mother thus loses less time at work time if she continues nursing her baby once she is back on the job.

It is interesting that the marketing used by formula companies pushes the use of formula (a very poor copy of the real thing) for the first year of life, yet implies that breast milk (from which the copy is made) is only worthwhile for six months or even less. Too many health professionals have taken up this absurd refrain.

I have heard that the immunologic factors in breast milk prevent the baby from developing his own immunity if breastfeeding continues past six months. This is untrue; in fact, this is absurd. It is unbelievable how so many people in our society twist around the advantages of breastfeeding and turn them into disadvantages. We give babies immunizations so that they are able to defend themselves against the real infection. Breast milk also helps the baby to fight off infections. When babies fight off these infections, they become immune naturally.

Some people fear that breastfeeding beyond the first months of life will hinder a baby’s independence and continued breastfeeding makes a toddler too dependent. Don’t believe it. The child who breastfeeds until he weans himself (usually between two and four years of age) is generally more independent.