Anyone spending much time around babies has heard the phrase “Breast is Best!” I love this phrase because it is both simple and true. It is unfortunate that in our culture we need an advertising campaign to convince us of the simple truth that babies were born to be breastfed. Even though the production of breast milk is a normal part of the postpartum course of events, in the United States breastfeeding is still not considered the normal way to feed an infant. A walk down the baby doll aisle of any local toy store will give you a good idea of what people in our culture consider the “normal” way to feed a baby. From a very young age, we indoctrinate our children that baby’s milk comes from a bottle.
If you have not been living inside a closet your entire adult life, you have been bombarded with information that leads you to believe that pharmaceutical companies have successfully created a breast milk substitute that is equal, if not superior, in the delivery of nutrition to infants. This could not be further from the truth. Recent studies indicate that breast milk is even better for babies than we knew, protecting children later in life from conditions such as asthma, diabetes and obesity, and that breastfeeding can reduce a woman’s risk of developing certain cancers later in life.
Exposure to breast milk soon after birth lays down the foundation for a healthy immune system in the newborn. It provides the perfect situation for intense hormone-supported bonding with Mom, and provides perfect nutrition for baby. But what about breastfeeding after this newborn period?
The World Health Organization’s policy statement on breastfeeding recommends that all infants be breastfed, except in rare circumstances, until the age of two. The American Academy of Pediatrics officially recommends that infants be breastfed as long as possible, for at least six months and ideally up to one year. Both the AAP and a similar association for Family Practice Physicians recommend that breastfeeding continue as long as it is mutually desired by mother and child.
Breast milk does not lose its ability to nourish or any of its other benefits to mother and child after the first few months or, in fact, ever. Breast milk continues to be a valuable source of nutrition and immune protection for as long as a child continues to breastfeed. Nursing toddlers (older than one year) have been found to have fewer illnesses and illnesses of shorter duration than non-nursing children of the same age. Breast milk is an excellent source of energy, Vitamins such as Calcium, Folate and Vitamin C and protein for growing toddlers. The practice of extended breastfeeding also protects children from allergies. Breast milk has anti-inflammatory properties and specially coats the intestines to prevent allergens from gaining access to the bloodstream.
Children who are breastfed past the first year have shown to have better cognitive development (through IQ scoring or grades in school) than non-breastfeeding peers. These children are also given the opportunity to achieve independence at their own, often slower rate, which affords them better social adjustment in the long run. While studies on this aspect of nursing are few, those studies that have focused on the social benefits of extended nursing have shown a decrease in the frequency of conduct disorders among children who were allowed extended nursing. These studies have also found that children who are breastfed for an extended time are better socially adjusted at age six to eight than children who are not breastfed or breastfed for a shorter period of time.
Speaking as a Registered Nurse and the mother of a breastfeeding eighteen month-old, I can attest that “Breast is (Still) Best!” Unfortunately, just as there are cultural barriers to the acceptance of breastfeeding as normal, in our country there are cultural prejudices against breastfeeding past year one. Women who allow their children the benefits of extended breastfeeding find facing the misunderstanding and prejudice to be a small price to pay for the myriad of benefits that nursing provides their babies as well as themselves, but they still may experience an emotional toll when faced with other people’s ignorance about the choice to extend breastfeeding. Women who are looking for support in nursing at any age can contact the La Leche League in their area or go online to www.llli.org for information or the support of enlightened breastfeeding advocates as well as other breastfeeding moms.
Heather Nugent is a homeschooling mom of two who lives in Dunkirk. She works outside the home as a labor and delivery nurse in Buffalo. Heather also works as a midwife's assistant, labor doula and massage therapist.