Breast Feeding Help - Breastfeeding a Toddler - Why Continue??

As more women embrace breastfeeding their infants, a growing number are finding the experience enjoyable enough to extend beyond their initial expectations. UNICEF encourages breastfeeding for two years or more, and the American Academy of Pediatrics now recommends at least one year, continuing as long as both the mother and baby desire. Even the Canadian Paediatric Society acknowledges the desire of some women to breastfeed for two years or more, and Health Canada endorses a similar viewpoint to UNICEF's. Historically, many societies commonly practiced breastfeeding toddlers for 3 to 4 years, and in some places, this practice persists.

Why continue breastfeeding past six months?

The enjoyment of both mothers and babies during breastfeeding is a strong reason to extend this unique bond. The benefits of continued breastfeeding also extend to the health and well-being of both mother and child.

But is it true that breastmilk loses its value after six months?

The notion that breastmilk loses nutritional value after six months is patently false. Breastmilk continues to provide essential nutrients like protein and fat, which are crucial for babies and children. It maintains immunologic factors that safeguard children from infections, with some factors becoming even more prominent in the second year of life when children face more potential sources of infection. Additionally, breastmilk contains special growth factors that support the maturation of the immune system and the development of various organs, including the brain and gut. Studies reveal that breastfeeding toddlers in daycare experience fewer and less severe infections than their non-breastfed peers, reducing the work absences of working mothers.

Ironically, while formula companies market their products for a full year, they often suggest that breastmilk is only valuable for the first six months ("the best nutrition for newborns"). This misunderstanding is unfortunately perpetuated by some health professionals.

I have heard that the immunologic factors in breastmilk prevent the baby from developing their immunity if breastfeeding continues past six months.

This belief is unfounded and absurd. Breastmilk complements the development of a child's immunity, and it doesn't impede it. Immunizations help children defend against real infections, while breastmilk aids in protecting against infections, allowing the child to develop immunity naturally.

But I want my baby to become independent

Is breastfeeding making the toddler overly dependent? Quite the opposite. Children who breastfeed until they choose to wean (usually between 2 to 4 years) often demonstrate greater independence. Moreover, they experience heightened security in their independence. Breastfeeding provides comfort and security, and when the child decides to stop, it marks a significant milestone in their life. Rushing children to become "independent" prematurely can be counterproductive. Children will naturally develop independence at their own pace.

Society often pressures children to achieve "independence" in various aspects of life prematurely, including sleeping alone, weaning, and separating from parents. Allowing a child to grow at their own pace is a more balanced approach. Needs that are met tend to diminish naturally, while unmet needs, such as the need for breastfeeding and closeness to a parent, may persist into childhood and even adolescence.

Breastfeeding may be used to create an overly dependent relationship in some situations, but this issue goes beyond breastfeeding alone.

What else?

Arguably, the most significant aspect of breastfeeding a toddler goes beyond the nutritional or immunologic benefits, important as they are. It revolves around the unique and special bond between a child and mother. Breastfeeding is an act of love that endures as the baby becomes a toddler. Anyone who has observed an older baby or toddler breastfeeding without preconceived notions can attest to the magical and profound connection that transcends mere nourishment. Sometimes, a toddler may laugh spontaneously while breastfeeding, revealing that the experience goes far beyond sustenance. When the breastfeeding experience is positive, it brings joy to both mother and child. While it's not always perfect, the moments of delight make the journey worthwhile.

Furthermore, when a child falls ill or gets hurt (common as they interact with other children and explore), breastfeeding is a comforting and natural way to provide solace. I recall nights in the emergency department where mothers with non-breastfeeding infants or toddlers walked anxiously up and down the halls, attempting to console their restless children, while breastfeeding mothers sat peacefully with their comforted, if not necessarily cheerful, babies at their breast. Breastfeeding brings comfort to the sick child and comfort to the mother.  To make an appointment email and respond to the auto reply or call 416-498-0002. 

Handout. Breastfeed a Toddler-Why on Earth? Revised © May 2008
Written and Revised by Jack Newman, MD, FRCPC 1995-2005

 This handout may be copied and distributed without further permission,
on the condition that  it is not used in any context that violates
the International WHO Code on The Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes


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