Breastfeeding Through the Years

Mom looking at her daughter breastfeedingAllyson Wessells, Columbus, Ohio

Breastfeeding is a journey, and it involves a lot of learning in the early days and weeks until months later when it can be so automatic that life without nursing is unimaginable. As the months pass, many find the comfort and nutrition breastfeeding provides are not easily replaceable. The goal of giving it a try for a few weeks turns into several months, and maybe years. After all, a baby knows only the nourishment, comfort and development it feels with each feeding, blissfully unaware of our construction of time.

Yet guidelines for breastfeeding duration do exist and are useful to satisfy our modern need for timelines. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that breastfeeding continue for at least 12 months, and thereafter for as long as mother and baby desire. The World Health Organization recommends continued breastfeeding up to two years of age and beyond. To some, these may seem extremely long while others may find them to be relatively short. Wherever a family is on this journey or timeline, it seems to me after years of breastfeeding, being a La Leche League Leader, and now an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC), there are three main reasons a baby breastfeeds: nutrition, comfort, and development.

In the initial weeks and months after birth, breastfeeding is a primary source of nutrition. But what happens after a year or two? In the second year of life, breast milk becomes more concentrated with fats, vitamins and proteins adapted for an active toddler who may feed for shorter amounts of time between playing and exploring. This nutritional value translates to fewer illnesses with antibodies being abundant throughout the duration of lactation as well. As solid food intake increases, breast milk that compliments the diet can actually augment rather than interfere with food intake. Breast milk is essentially a natural multi-vitamin for the older nursling!

Comfort is a part of breastfeeding and perhaps intensifies with longer duration as well. Emotional trust and a foundation for all future relationships can grow with each feeding. The two to three-year-old child navigating ever changing social scenes finds familiarity and reassurance with responsive breastfeeding, whether after a hard fall or just before sleeping at night, frequency naturally much less than the early days and weeks of life.

Development is happening on many levels for the duration of breastfeeding. Mouth structure and coordination grow for better word formation as well as reduced need for orthodontics the longer a child breastfeeds. Additionally, a recent longitudinal study has shown that the longer a baby breastfeeds the more successful they are with motor abilities even into the teenage years.

Understanding reasons for breastfeeding up to and beyond modern timeline recommendations can help improve acceptance and support. It is a part of our biology, with a natural duration recorded to be around two and one-half to seven years, and now increasingly backed by research from many different angles.

Whether directive weaning or child led weaning or somewhere in between, weaning will happen. Each experience will be unique, some with realities that interfere with even considering organizational recommendations, others without encouragement to match instinct to do so. Information combined with support and understanding from partner, family, friends and community ultimately helps ensure the nutritional, emotional and developmental well-being that breastfeeding can provide through the years!

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Dewey KG. (2001) Nutrition, Growth, and Complementary Feeding of the Breastfed Infant. Pediatric Clinics of North American. pp 48(1).

Oddy W, et al (2010) The Long Term Effects of Breastfeeding on Child and Adolescent Mental Health Journal of Pediatrics vol 156 (4): pp 568-574.

Tegan, G, et al (2017). Breastfeeding and Motor Development: A Longitudinal Cohort Study. Human Movement Science, Volume 51. pp. 9-16. doi: 10.1016/j.humov.2016.10.001.

Dettwyler, K.A. “A Time to Wean” in Breastfeeding: Biocultural Perspectives. Hawthorne, NY: Aldine de Gruyter, 1995.

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