The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends exclusive breast or chest feeding for the first 6 months of life after which time babies should be given complimentary foods and continue to be breast or chest fed for up to two years or BEYOND! In the United States, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) mirrors the recommendation of six months of exclusive breast or chest feeding but only recommends duration of up to one year or beyond. As a result of the latter, many birth parents in the United States opt for breast or chest feeding for only six months and those that make it to a year quickly wean upon the first birthday anniversary because they read the AAP's language as stating "up to a year" and do not read the full context of the recommendation: up to a year or BEYOND!
Human milk is not just for newborns and babies. Human milk has been proven to evolve over the period of time that the child continues to consume it. In the second year, between 13-24 months, 448 mLs (slightly more than 15 ounces) of breastmilk has been shown to provide: 29% of energy requirements, 43% of protein requirements, 36% of calcium requirements, 75% of vitamin A requirements, 76% of folate requirements, 94% of vitamin B12 requirements, 60% of vitamin C requirements. (Dewey 2001). We have also found that the fat and energy content of human milk from lactating parents who have been lactating for over one year is greater than that of milk from parents who have been lactating for shorter periods of time (Mandel 2005). It is, therefore, egregious that healthcare professionals, specifically pediatricians in the US, routinely tell parents that human milk after a year has "no nutritional value."
Human milk continues to confer significant nutritional and immunological protections beyond the first year of life. We need to do a much better job of providing accurate, evidence-based information to parents in order to empower them to make informed decisions that best suit their developmental and health goals for their children. Immunity benefits of human milk improve with duration! It takes between two and six years for a child's immune system to fully mature. A number of studies have shown that children that breast or chest feed maintain better health outcomes during the duration of breast or chest feeding. Some studies have also shown that these health benefits may last beyond the duration of breast or chest feeding and may pose greater health benefits long into the individual's life span. (Goldman 1983, Saarenin, U. 1982)
We need to advocate for improved parental support in our society by electing politicians that truly support family values and who will ensure that we have federal protections allowing for significant PAID family leave and lactation services coverage, like other developed nations have. The United States is among just nine countries in the world who do NOT provide any nationwide PAID family leave. There are currently some states that, over the last several years, have legislated paid family leave but we still have no federal protection for paid leave for families.
Breast or Chest Feeding Is MUCH MORE Than Drinking Milk
Breast or chest feeding provides so much more than just human milk consumption and lower morbidity and mortality rates. Feeding at the breast or chest of a parent provides comfort, protection, connection and trust through the unique hormonal imprinting that happens when child and parent connect at the breast or chest. We owe it to our children to provide families with optimal support to ensure that parents are making informed choices about infant and child feeding and that parents receive the appropriate resources to help them reach their goals.
In the United States, there is intense societal pressure on lactating parents to stop breast or chest feeding at a year of age. I experienced this first hand and after a year and a half of relentless scrutiny I weaned my daughter at almost 2.5 years of age. Neither of us were ready and we would have likely naturally weaned a year after my precipitous push to wean her due to the constant intrusions and disapproval. Eleven and a half years later and I still feel pained about the experience and the constant pressure I experienced. Why is it anyone's business when a parent and child end the nursing relationship? What burden does a nursing toddler or child pose on anyone outside of the child parent relationship? The issue, at least partly, stems from the sexualization of breasts in our society. There is NO age or location when breast or chest feeding is inappropriate. Satiating, hydrating and nurturing our children can NEVER be inappropriate. We need to pay closer attention to the language we use because it perpetuates ideas about what is normal and what is not. Calling human milk feeding of a child over the age of one or any age "extended" breast or chest feeding necessitates the assumption that there is an age when nursing stops being appropriate. Normal term breast or chest feeding is what human children do when allowed to naturally evolve in their nursing experience. On average, human children naturally wean, in societies where there is no pressure or intervention to wean, between the ages of 2.5 and 4 years of age, though of course there are some children who will naturally wean earlier and some that when allowed to nurse without constraints or pressure to wean will breast or chest feed for as long as 7 years of age.
Support For Breast Or Chest Feeding Beyond A Year
If you have breast or chest fed your child for ANY duration, I CONGRATULATE you! If you are nursing beyond the first year, I want you to know that only you and your child should determine when it is appropriate to end your nursing relationship. For more support with your normal term nursing experience you can visit kellymom, find a La Leche League meeting for nursing toddlers in the US or else where in the world, visit the Natural Child Project for accurate information on the benefits of normal term breast or chest feeding, or visit kveller or Parenting for encouragement and tips on how to handle the unwarranted societal pressure to wean on someone else's timeline.
For the wonderful mamas in my life that have completed normal term breastfeeding (these parents identify as moms and as breastfeeders): Rachel E., Logan, Kimberleigh, Rachel C., Lexy, Jennifer, Elena, Marah, Tara, Shontay, Ann, Michele L., Mary W. E., Amy, Lisa V., Cynthia, and Lisa S. A.: CONGRATS on your beautiful accomplishment!! For the lovely mamas in my life, and every where, currently nursing your babes past the first year: Karin, Lauren, Jessica, Beth, Jill and Maria: you have my endless love and support any time you need refuge from our often-times punishing world.
“When you hold a child to your breast to nurse, the curve of the little head echoes exactly the curve of the breast it suckles, as though this new person truly mirrors the flesh from which it sprang.” -Diana Gabaldon, Dragonfly in Amber