Nature Knows Best. Mothers in traditional societies breastfeed their children well into their toddler years, and there is a good reason for it. The World Health Organization suggests exclusive breastfeeding for 6 months with continued breastfeeding for up to 2 years and beyond. But, in the U.S., breastfeeding a baby past their first birthday is called extended breastfeeding, and it is not culturally accepted. New studies are proving that mothers who let their child decide when to quit nursing are helping their babies receive optimal mental and physical health.
Dr. Katy Dettwyler, anthropologist and breastfeeding advocate, studied 64 traditional societies and found that their median age for weaning was 2.8 years. Her research shows that many tribal communities wean between three and four years of age and often much older. Such communities practice child-led weaning or let the child decide when they no longer need the breast. Child-led weaning is becoming more popular in the US, but women who practice “extended” breastfeeding often hide it from others to spare themselves ridicule.
The 2-4 year age range for natural weaning is fascinating in conjunction with new scientific studies that show that the brain and the gut continue to develop well into the third year of life and breastfeeding during this time is crucial for brain and gut development. Studies show that the gut-brain development within the first few years of life reflects the health of a person throughout adulthood.
Filled with healthy fats, vitamins, and minerals, breast milk is the perfect food to build the cellular components of the gut and brain and to provide fuel for their optimal functioning. But, there is much more to breast milk that has been overlooked until now. The no-longer-secret ingredient necessary for gut and brain development-- the reason that extended breastfeeding is so important is-- MICROBES!
Microbes are always competing with each other for food and space. The food a person eats feeds the microbes within their body, and different strains of microbes feed upon different things. In addition to containing more than 700 types of microbes, breast milk also contains simple sugars that feed specific kinds of beneficial, gut-seeding microbes.
In a recent experiment, Vicky Greene, a biosciences student at South Devon College, did an experiment where breast milk samples from mothers with babies ages 15 months and 3 years were cultured with bacteria M. Luteus. In all 9 samples, the bacteria did not grow near the breast milk because the breast milk fought off the colonization of the bacteria. This experiment showed that not only is breast milk a powerful antibiotic but that the antimicrobial properties of breast milk continue into the toddler years when the gut microbiome is still in critical formation.
Breast milk has a very high concentration of white blood cells, the immune system's soldiers in the battle against pathogens. The composition of breast milk changes depending on what the mother's nipple perceives that the child needs after contact with the child's saliva. This customizable feature of breast milk is apparent in premature babies and toddlers alike.
Science has only recently been able to see how the gut and brain influence each other, but it is known that there is a causal relationship between breastfeeding and mental health and cognitive development. Scientists are theorizing that the seeding of the gut microbiome may be the most important factor in the gut-brain axis development. Scientists studying the gut's affects on autism are giving additional weight to the case for "extended" breastfeeding.
Many women hate nursing toddlers, but people accuse women of doing so for selfish reasons. Toddlers fuss, they have teeth, and they become demanding, and frankly, women are sick and tired of having their nipples stretched, scratched, bitten, and twiddled. Many moms are ready to wean way before their child is ready, but they put their child's needs before their own.
A breastfeeding mom is a mom who sacrifices. She sacrifices her body, her time, her social life, and her feelings. She suffers persecution for being a nurturing mother.
There is no need to call breastfeeding past the age of 1 "extended." It is not an excess, and it is arguably the best thing a mother can do for the health of her child. Breast milk has properties so remarkably complex that it can in no way be mimicked. It is hard and frustrating to nurse a toddler, and mothers who breastfeed should be supported and not ridiculed.
Note: The author acknowledges that there are additional benefits to nursing a child until they are ready to wean that are not covered in this post.