It seems like no sooner have you and your new baby mastered the art of breastfeeding than the question of “how long?” comes up.
The first few weeks can be difficult as you both learn this new skill. In these early days, any breastmilk you can provide your baby with is better than none at all, so to come this far is something you should be proud of. You may have battled to get baby positioned and attached well so that feeding became pain free throughout. Perhaps you had to learn how to unplug milk ducts to avoid mastitis or dodge untrained health care professionals or well meaning but misinformed family and friends setting ‘booby traps’.
You’re finally feeling like you know what you’re doing, and enjoying the convenience of breastfeeding, when someone asks you how long you’re going to breastfeed for.
You might not have given it much thought, or you may have a goal in mind, but let’s look at the guidelines:
The NHS and the World Health Organisation (WHO) advise exclusive breastfeeding for 6 months. Most people are aware of this but some are unclear what it means. Simply put, it means no other food or drink is needed for the first 6 months.
The World Health Organisation’s (W.H.O.) guidelines are often used in articles about breastfeeding but regularly misquoted or misinterpreted by the author. So what exactly do they say about breastfeeding and how long it should continue?
The W.H.O. state: “Exclusive breastfeeding is recommended until 6 months of age, with continued breastfeeding along with appropriate complementary foods up to two years of age or beyond.”
At around 6 months a baby will become ready to start exploring other foods but will continue to need milk for at least a year to fulfil their dietary requirements. Cow’s milk cannot be used as a baby’s main milk source until they are 1 year old. Infant formula or “follow on” milk must be used if not breastfeeding but if you are breastfeeding it is unnecessary to use other milk.
“Up to two years of age OR BEYOND”
So how far ‘beyond’ is ok?
Your milk will continue to provide nearly all the nutrients an older baby needs and will still provide the unique immune boosting properties other milks cannot give.
In fact, during the second year of lactation, many of the immunological properties in human milk actually increase, nearly matching the levels seen during the first few weeks of milk production. This coincides with the increased mobility of an older baby and the greater exposure to environmental pathogens.
Human milk doesn’t have a ‘use by’ date. Milk production will continue for as long as there is demand. Many other cultures practice long term breastfeeding. It may be an unusual practice in the UK and some other developed nations but there are still many benefits to a child receiving his/her mother’s milk well beyond the cultural norm. No other food can provide the level of nutrition and protection human milk can. It’s the healthiest fast food going and the perfect way to plug the holes in a typical, fussy toddler’s diet.
However, breastfeeding is far more than a mere food source. The hormone exchange which raises oxytocin levels in both mother and child, continue to promote bonding and can be a great way to reconnect after a busy day or to sooth a tired toddler or a pre-schooler in meltdown. Breastfeeding promotes both physical and psychological health.
Breastfeeding beyond infancy may be counter-cultural here in the UK but there is evidence to suggest it’s the biological norm. American anthropologist Dr Katherine Dettwyler’s research puts the natural weaning age of humans between 2.5 – 7 years with the majority falling in the upper range. It would seem it is not mere coincidence that the human immune system maturing and the loss of deciduous teeth, aka ‘milk teeth’, happen at around the same time.
Despite the research and proven benefits, breastfeeding rates in industrialised countries remain low and breastfeeding beyond infancy is unusual. When we start to talk about breastfeeding beyond school age it becomes taboo and a highly emotive topic even though there is a complete lack of any evidence to support the many negative connotations breastfeeding older children creates.
Ann Sinnott who breastfed her own child for 6.5 years writes extensively on this topic in her book “Breastfeeding Older Children” and writes about what she has learned from speaking to some of the thousands of women who quietly go about sustaining the breastfeeding relationship for many years.
Quite simply, if breastfeeding is working and you are both happy, there is no need to instigate weaning as a child’s innate need to suckle will diminish and eventually cease. Despite what some may say you won’t be breastfeeding when your child is in college!
Psychotherapeutic Counsellor, Birthing
and Infant Feeding Supporter;
Mum to Oscar, Max and Samuel.