Breastfeed a Toddler - Why on Earth?

By Jack Newman, MD, FRCPC

Now that more and more women are breastfeeding their babies, more and more are also finding that they enjoy breastfeeding enough to want to continue longer than the usual few months they initially thought they would.

UNICEF has long encouraged breastfeeding for two years and longer, and the American Academy of Pediatrics is now on record as encouraging mothers to breastfeed at least one year and then for as long after as the 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 and Health Canada has put out a statement similar to UNICEF's.

Breastfeeding to 3 and 4 years of age has been common in much of the world until recently in human history, and it is still common in many societies for toddlers to breastfeed.

Why should breastfeeding continue past six months?

Because mothers and babies often enjoy breastfeeding a lot. Why stop an enjoyable relationship? And continued breastfeeding is good for the health and welfare of both the mother and child.

But it is said that breastmilk has no value after six months.

Perhaps this is said, but it is patently wrong. That anyone (including pediatricians) can say such a thing only shows how ill-informed so many people in our society are about breastfeeding. Breastmilk 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.

Breastmilk still contains immunologic factors that help protect the child even if he is 2 or older. In fact, some immune factors in breastmilk 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 a year are generally exposed to more infections than young babies. Breastmilk still contains special growth factors that help the immune system to mature, and which help the brain, gut, and other organs to develop and mature.

It has been well 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 work time if she continues breastfeeding her baby once she is back at her paid work.

It is interesting that formula company marketing pushes the use of formula (a very poor copy of breastmilk) for a year, yet implies that breastmilk (which formula tries unsuccessfully to copy) is only worthwhile for 6 months or even less ("the best nutrition for newborns"). Too many health professionals have taken up the refrain.

I have heard that the immunologic factors in breastmilk prevent the baby from developing his own immunity if I breastfeed 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. Breastmilk also helps the baby to fight off infections.

When the baby fights off these infections, he becomes immune. Naturally.

But I want my baby to become independent.

And breastfeeding makes the toddler dependent? Don't believe it. The child who breastfeeds until he weans himself (usually from 2 to 4 years), is usually more independent, and, perhaps, more importantly, more secure in his independence.

He has received comfort and security from the breast, until he is ready to make the step himself to stop. And when a child makes that step himself, he knows he has achieved something, he knows he has moved ahead. It is a milestone in his life of which he is proud.

Often we push children to become "independent" too quickly. To sleep alone too soon, to wean from the breast too soon, to do without their parents too soon, to do everything too soon. Don't push and the child will become independent soon enough.

What's the rush? Soon they will be leaving home. You want them to leave home at 14? If a need is met, it goes away. If a need is unmet (such as the need to breastfeed and be close to his mother), it remains a need well into childhood and even the teenage years.