The Benefits of Extended Breastfeeding
At age 1 year and 1 month, Gavin is still nursing strong. It has always been my intention to nurse him until he turns two or until he is ready to wean on his own. But recently, I have discovered the extra benefits of nursing him into toddlerhood (which I presume begins when a child turns one).
Since he became mobile, Gavin's been climbing more things, getting into drawers, and squeezing into all sorts of nooks and crannies. It also means he's been bumping his head, falling down, and hurting his fingers a lot more. More often than not, he usually doesn't notice when he's bumped his head, or slammed his fingers in the drawer, unless it really, really hurts, or he's already feeling tired and irritable. If he doesn't react, I'll usually pretend I didn't see anything. But if he starts howling, I'll try to comfort him as best I can. One of the biggest benefits of extended nursing is that when I can't console him with hugs and kisses, offering him the breast is great for soothing those inconsolable tears.
Another benefit of extended nursing is something I've only recently really started to comprehend. Since around about the nine month mark, Gavin has been extremely difficult to feed and we've had to employ all sorts of creative tactics to get him to eat his solids. Until now, he's only really eating one to two real meals a day - the rest of the time, he's just nibbling. Even then, the food he usually eats is mostly bread, cheese, teething biscuits and noodles. We'll try to feed him anything else that he'll take but once he's happy eating a particular food during a meal, we are usually hesitant to introduce a new flavour because he has a tendency to stop eating altogether if he doesn't like the new taste. Extremely temperamental, he'll stop eating if he gets angry, bored, restless or if you try to do something he doesn't agree with (e.g. feed him fish when he was already happy eating chicken).
This disinterest in food has gotten many of the family members concerned, and we've done everything from offering him everything that he is remotely interested in to formula. Yeah, I don't know what I was thinking. Although breastmilk contains all the nutrients a baby needs, by about 6 months, the only mineral lacking is iron. This is because the iron stores that Mummy transferred to baby have been depleted, meaning that baby now needs to get his own supply.
Since formula is fortified with iron, we thought of giving him a bottle so his diet would be nutritionally balanced, but it seemed ridiculous to encourage him to take the bottle when he was already one year old and he has been happy with a sippy cup since he was nine months old. Additionally, age one is when most babies are encouraged to start drinking from cups and from a dental perspective, the prevention of bottle caries meant that bottles were no longer a suitable medium to be feeding liquids to babies. At any rate, Gavin displayed no interest in formula milk, probably since he was already getting the good stuff at night.
Despite Gavin's apparent "lack of interest in food", my MIL has been amazed that he still manages to maintain his generous baby padding and that his weight remains above average for his age. Even I, who feel that his current solid food consumption is acceptable, also wonder about how he's managed to keep the weight up. Until the hubby pointed out that Gavin was a heavy nurser during the night when he said, "He's practically stuck to your breast for half the night!" Well, "half the night" seems to me to be a tad exaggerated, but even I can't deny that Gavin does nurse quite a lot at night.
Nutritional Benefits of Extended Nursing
And if I was at all worried about Gavin meeting his daily nutritional requirements, an article on extended breastfeeding from KellyMom has laid to rest my concerns with the following:
- "Human milk expressed by mothers who have been lactating for >1 year has significantly increased fat and energy contents, compared with milk expressed by women who have been lactating for shorter periods. During prolonged lactation, the fat energy contribution of breast milk to the infant diet might be significant."
-- Mandel 2005
- "Breast milk continues to provide substantial amounts of key nutrients well beyond the first year of life, especially protein, fat, and most vitamins."
-- Dewey 2001
- In the second year (12-23 months), 448 mL of breastmilk provides:
- 29% of energy requirements
- 43% of protein requirements
- 36% of calcium requirements
- 75% of vitamin A requirements
- 76% of folate requirements
- 94% of vitamin B12 requirements
- 60% of vitamin C requirements
-- Dewey 2001
The Myths Surrounding Extended Breastfeeding
I have heard that a common recommendation to mothers whose nursing toddlers are fussy eaters that it is advisable to reduce their breastmilk intake to help increase their appetite. I would like to set the facts straight on this matter.
Sally Kneidel in "Nursing Beyond One Year" (New Beginnings, Vol. 6 No. 4, July-August 1990, pp. 99-103.) wrote:
Some doctors may feel that nursing will interfere with a child's appetite for other foods. Yet there has been no documentation that nursing children are more likely than weaned children to refuse supplementary foods. In fact, most researchers in Third World countries, where a malnourished toddler's appetite may be of critical importance, recommend continued nursing for even the severely malnourished (Briend et al, 1988; Rhode, 1988; Shattock and Stephens, 1975; Whitehead, 1985). Most suggest helping the malnourished older nursing child not by weaning but by supplementing the mother's diet to improve the nutritional quality of her milk (Ahn and MacLean. 1980; Jelliffe and Jelliffe, 1978) and by offering the child more varied and more palatable foods to improve his or her appetite (Rohde, 1988; Tangermann, 1988; Underwood, 1985).
I have also heard the comment from others that nursing babies seem more clingy and dependent than bottle-fed babies. I tend to think that the clinginess isn't due to the fact that the child is nursing, but that bottle-fed babies are forced into independence far too early. The clinginess that is displayed is a normal part of childhood and it displays the strength of a child's survival instincts to cling to Mummy. If you follow the theory that evolution is recapitulated in infancy and realise that a child's higher brain function does not kick in until they are much older, it stands to good reason that they would want to stay close to Mummy. An infant in the wild who loses his mother often spells a death sentence because nothing swoops in faster on an unprotected infant than the predators.
"Breastfeeding is a warm and loving way to meet the needs of toddlers and young children. It not only perks them up and energizes them; it also soothes the frustrations, bumps and bruises, and daily stresses of early childhood. In addition, nursing past infancy helps little ones make a gradual transition to childhood. Meeting a child's dependency needs is the key to helping that child achieve independence. And children outgrow these needs according to their own unique timetable (Baldwin 1993)." Children who achieve independence at their own pace are more secure in that independence then children forced into independence prematurely.
Another common belief going around is that breastfeeding Mums are at higher risk of developing osteoporosis because their babies leech their calcium stores through breastmilk. Although I had read before that breastfeeding actually protects breastfeeding Mums from osteoporosis, I wasn't sure about the mechanics of it. According to KellyMom, although a breastfeeding Mum experiences a decrease in bone mineral during the period she is nursing, this is gained back once the baby is weaned. In some cases, her bone density may even increase irrespective of additional calcium supplementation in her diet. So if you're at risk of osteoporosis (my mother has it and her mother before her), then you certainly should be breastfeeding, not avoiding it!
For the full benefits of extended breastfeeding, you can read all about it from KellyMom's fact sheet.
A common concern I have heard about breastfeeding toddlers it that it will be harder to wean them past one year. According to toddler nursing from KellyMom, "nursing past a year does NOT make it impossible or even necessarily more difficult to wean later on... Age has much less to do with ease of weaning than does your child's developmental readiness for weaning... the age that a child is ready to self-wean varies greatly from child to child and commonly ranges from age 2 through age 4."
Children generally self-wean when they no longer have a need for it either nutritionally or emotionally. Weaning occurs over a period of time, with your child decreasing the number of nursing sessions one at a time. Anything more rapid than this is usually indicative of a nursing strike. Things like Mummy's pregnancy can affect weaning, too. Some children self-wean partway through the pregnancy as the taste of breastmilk changes due to the pregnancy hormones. Others may continue tandem breastfeeding with a younger sibling. Whatever it is, you can be sure that your child will self-wean when he is good and ready. Until that time, rest assured that you and your child will be reaping the benefits of nursing past one year.
About the Author
If you like this post, you can find more articles on my experiences and research on parenting on my blog Babylicious.
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