Breastfeed a Toddler - Why on Earth?
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
paediatricians) 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
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
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.
Of course, breastfeeding can, in some situations, be used to foster an over-dependent
relationship. But so can food or toilet training. The problem is not
the breastfeeding. This is another issue.
Possibly the most important aspect of breastfeeding a toddler is not
the nutritional or immunologic benefits, important as they are. I
believe the most important aspect of breastfeeding a toddler is the
special relationship between child and his mother. Breastfeeding is a
life-affirming act of love that repeats itself every time the child
goes to the breast. This continues when the baby becomes a toddler.
Anyone without prejudices, who has ever observed an older baby or
toddler breastfeeding can testify that there is something special,
something far beyond food, going on. A toddler will sometimes
spontaneously, for no obvious reason, break into laughter while he is
breastfeeding. His delight in the breast goes far beyond a source of
food. And if the mother allows herself, breastfeeding becomes a source
of delight for her as well, far beyond the pleasure of providing food.
Of course, it’s not always great, but what is? And when it is, it makes
it all so worthwhile.
And if the child does become ill or gets hurt (and they do as they meet
other children and become more daring), what easier way to comfort the
child than breastfeeding? I remember nights in the emergency department
when mothers would walk their ill, non-breastfeeding babies or toddlers
up and down the halls trying, often unsuccessfully, to console them,
while the breastfeeding mothers were sitting quietly with their
comforted, if not necessarily happy, babies at the breast. The mother
comforts the sick child with breastfeeding and the child comforts the
mother by breastfeeding.
Questions? First look at the website nbci.ca or drjacknewman.com. If the information you need is not there, go to Contact Us and give us the information listed there in your email. Information is also available in Dr. Jack Newman’s Guide to Breastfeeding (called The Ultimate Breastfeeding Book of Answers in the USA); and/or our DVD, Dr. Jack Newman’s Visual Guide to Breastfeeding (available in French or with subtitles in Spanish, Portuguese and Italian); and/or The Latch Book and Other Keys to Breastfeeding Success; and/or L-eat Latch and Transfer Tool; and/or the GamePlan for Protecting and Supporting Breastfeeding in the First 24 Hours of Life and Beyond.
To make an appointment online with our clinic please visit www.nbci.ca. If you do not have easy access to email or internet, you may phone (416) 498-0002.
Breastfeeding a Toddler, 2009©
Written and revised (under other names) by Jack Newman, MD, FRCPC, 1995-2005©
Revised by Jack Newman MD, FRCPC, IBCLC and Edith Kernerman IBCLC, 2008, 2009©