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Breastfeeding older children might be uncommon – but that doesn’t make it wrong

Breastfeeding norms vary around the world. Shutterstock/Parinya Feungchan

Breastfeeding can be a minefield. From women being asked to cover up or leave when feeding in public places, to others feeling that they are being looked down on by some if they don’t breastfeed, it seems that this natural process is constantly in the press.

Every so often, an article about a woman breastfeeding her older child, up to the age of five or six, causes a furore, as parents, experts and others debate whether the practice is “healthy” for the child. Remember that cover of Time magazine?

But why? Does breastfeeding past infancy increase a child’s risk of illness? No. Does it damage the child emotionally in some way? No. Does it cause harm to others? Again, no. It actually does the complete opposite: in fact, the World Health Organisation recommends that breastfeeding is continued up to two years and beyond. Furthermore, the American Academy of Pediatraics has stated:

There is no upper limit to the duration of breastfeeding and no evidence of psychologic or developmental harm from breastfeeding into the third year of life or longer.

These statements are born from good reason. Although people in the West may not be used to seeing children breastfed, this doesn’t mean that it isn’t biologically normal. Many non-Western societies have a median breastfeeding duration of around three years and some longer than that. Studies comparing when non-human primates stop breastfeeding suggest it is around the time of the first permanent teeth –- that’s around five to six years old in human children.

Breastfeeding: perfectly natural yet still a taboo. David_Martin_Foto/Flickr, CC BY

Biological norms tend to have health benefits, too, and breastfeeding is no different: a pint of breastmilk during the second year and beyond will provide 94% of the vitamin B12, 75% of the vitamin A and 60% of the vitamin C recommended intake. For free. Which is certainly useful when your toddler is eyeing anything nutrient dense with great suspicion.

Breast milk actually increases in its immune fighting properties after the first year, meaning less illness for children. And the longer a mother breastfeeds, the lower her risk of breast cancer, too. Outside of health, research suggests that longer breastfeeding can increase a child’s academic performance and may even help their emotional and social development.

Communication and comfort

All good, right? Apparently not. A quick scroll of the internet tells us that the general public are less than impressed with the concept of extended breastfeeding. But given it’s not them who has to do it, why exactly are they so adverse?

It all comes down to how the West views breastfeeding. People there are not even used to seeing tiny babies breastfed, so older children breastfeeding comes as something of a shock to some. A recent study showed that the UK has the lowest breastfeeding rates in the world. Less than a third of babies are breastfed past six months, with only one in 200 babies breastfed past their first birthday. Formula milk has by default become the visible experience of many, certainly when thinking about babies over a few weeks old.

The reasons for this are complex and combine biological, social and psychological factors. However, a major factor is that Western societies tend not to be supportive of breastfeeding. This non-acceptance is a major issue because to have the best chances of breastfeeding successfully, a mother needs to be in an environment that is supportive and protective of breastfeeding. However, many new mothers do not get the support they need from others around them, who believe that breastfeeding isn’t important, or that any problems should be solved with a bottle.

Others encounter negative attitudes from strangers if they breastfeed in public – a right which, by the way, is protected by law. Comments about breastfeeding being sexual, exhibitionist or humorous are common. Breasts have become so over sexualised by the media that some unimaginative people make the assumption that anything to do with them is sexual in nature.

What this means is that fewer women continue breastfeeding, and fewer still do so visibly, so less of us actually see breastfeeding happening. The combination of this conditioning contributes to the ill-informed outrage surrounding breastfeeding older children: in their eyes, breastfeeding is rare and for tiny babies; breasts = sex. Combine that with an “older” child who can eat solid foods and ask for it and that’s just wrong, right?

Well, no. Even the tiniest babies ask for milk, just not verbally. And besides, breastfeeding isn’t all about nutrition – it’s about communication and comfort. Think about it: most people don’t bat an eyelid when toddlers have a bottle, dummy or comfort blanket. From a biological perspective, children need comfort and ultimately whether society likes to admit it or not, these comfort objects are breast substitutes.

Extended breastfeeding may not be our cultural norm, but this does not stop it being the biological norm. Something that improves health, development and wellbeing; definitely not something that causes mothers to be on the receiving end of criticism, negativity and ridicule.

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