When my son was five, someone took a photo of us whilst he was quietly breastfeeding on a park bench. I remember feeling embarrassed and angry at the same time. The fact that it was unusual enough for them to take a photo, made me feel like a rare species!
In the 1990s, reactions to long term breastfeeding ranged from intrigue to horror. A family member once told me they were worried he might grow up to be a rapist! Fortunately I had great support from La Leche League and a group of local mums’ who were also still feeding their children.
Of course this was more than 25 years ago and you might expect that reactions from people back then would be less accepting than in 2022.
Decades on and has anything changed? Although breastfeeding, is accepted to have many benefits to mother and baby, the concept of breastfeeding your child beyond a year still remains incredibly controversial.
Whilst it is every mother’s individual choice whether to breastfeed and how long for, societal judgement can impact a mother’s decision.
How many mothers might be made to feel embarrassed or like a ‘weirdo’ by the general public by choosing to breastfeed beyond infancy?
Participants in a long-term breastfeeding study run by researchers at The University of Birmingham appeared to echo my thoughts;
“They all think I’m mad, the whole family! They’re quite nice to my face… It’s more that I know when I’m not in the room that comments are made about it, and I know she [my mother] has said things to my husband.”
“When I picked her up from nursery she would always want a feed and I didn’t just feed her there, I would go and hide somewhere…I didn’t even tell the nursery staff I was still breastfeeding.”
Long-term or extended breastfeeding is the definition to describe breastfeeding beyond infancy, or around 12 months.
Some women prefer the term ‘natural-term breastfeeding’, as they believe that breastfeeding beyond infancy is what our ancestors would have done naturally.
Beyond individual mothers' anecdotes, there is some compelling evidence that long-term breastfeeding could have many great benefits. Here are some that I’ve come across in my research;
You probably already know that breastfeeding releases the feel-good hormone, oxytocin, to stimulate the release of milk (this is sometimes called the letdown reflex). What you might not know is that the mum also receives the feel-good effects of the chemical, leading to increased feelings of calm and lowering stress and anxiety.
This hormone can actually be quite addictive, not only for the baby but for the mother too! I know that when I stopped feeding my oldest son at five, I had withdrawal symptoms and became quite anxious and irritable! With my youngest, I was careful to stop more slowly and reduce it for us both gradually.
My son is very self-aware and laid back as an adult and although I don’t have ‘proof’, I think this could be due to the long-term effect of the calming chemical in breast milk!
Numerous studies have linked breastfeeding with higher intelligence in children, as well as having a lower risk of children having hyperactivity and attention deficit disorders.
Although there is some disagreement as to whether breastfeeding increases intelligence (many other factors would need to be discounted such as background, nurture etc), there is evidence that breast milk is richer in long-chain saturated fatty acids that are integral to brain development.
Researchers at Brown University discovered that breastfeeding can increase a baby's brain growth by 20 to 30 percent.
Although there aren’t any studies specifically related to long-term breastfeeding, it stands to reason that if a child continues to receive the nutrients that help with their brain development, this can only be a good thing! Especially since human brains don’t actually stop developing until we’re in our mid-20s!
Breastmilk is considered to be the most nutritionally balanced food source for a growing infant. It contains all the important nutrients they need to build their immune system and reduce the risk of them developing infections, suffering from sudden infant death syndrome (SIDs) and developing chronic diseases such as obesity and cardiovascular disease in later life.
The NHS even explicitly states; “any amount of breast milk has a positive effect. The longer you breastfeed, the longer the protection lasts and the greater the benefits.”
A major long-term study in Brazil found that babies that were breastfed proved to have higher IQs and higher incomes in adulthood. Interestingly, it was shown that the longer participants were breastfed, the better they tended to be doing in adult life.
The author of the study, Dr Bernardo Lessa Horta from the Federal University of Pelotas in Brazil, said;
“Our study provides the first evidence that prolonged breastfeeding not only increases intelligence until at least the age of 30 years but also has an impact both at an individual and societal level by improving educational attainment and earning ability,”.
Although this study only studied babies that had breastfed up to 12 months, it seems to indicate that the longer babies are breastfed, the better!
According to anthropologist Katherine Dettwyler, who has done extensive cross-cultural breast-feeding research;
"There is some evidence that longer-term breastfeeding (along with co-sleeping in childhood) results in children who are more independent and score higher on measures of social competence,"
Although very few (if any) scientific studies have been done related to long-term breastfeeding, Dettwyler reassures mothers that there is nothing ‘unnatural’ about it;
"As far as I know, there are no 'costs' to the child. If the mother doesn't want to continue breastfeeding, then, of course, she shouldn't feel obliged to — regardless of the age of the child. But people should be informed that nursing a six to seven-year-old is a perfectly normal and natural and healthy thing to be doing for the child and that their fears of emotional harm are baseless."
What do you think? Did you breastfeed beyond a year? Did you notice any benefits?