The Case for Breastfeeding Toddlers

Photography: Brandi Johnson

By Emily Wade

Nature Knows Best. Mothers in traditional societies breastfeed their children well into their toddler years, and there is good reason for it. The World Health Organization suggests exclusive breastfeeding for 6 months with continued breastfeeding for at least 2 years. But, in the US, 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 breast feeding 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 long 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. There is a growing population of women who are turning to nature for child rearing advice. Such women trust their gut, listen to their babies, and study the benefits of things like breastfeeding.

Formula does not exist in nature, and most babies have a gag-reflex until at least 12 months of age which keeps them from being able to eat foods that aren’t pureed and made into baby food. Nature’s food is breast milk, and breast milk meets all of a baby’s nutritional needs.

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 reflect 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 bio sciences student at South Devon College, did an experiment where breast milk samples from mothers with babies ages 15 month 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 contains microbes, probiotics, prebiotics and antibiotics all at once! Breast milk has properties so remarkably complex that it can in no way be mimicked. Breast milk is needed, not just preferred, by babies well into their toddler years.

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