Updated: Aug 1, 2021
by Alissa Pemberton – Midwife, International Board Certified Lactation Consultant & Holistic Sleep Coach www.motherandmilk.co.uk
As a mother, I've heard that phrase a lot - "Are you STILL breastfeeding?" This is usually followed by "When do you think you'll stop?" It's strange that we seem to think breastfeeding has an expiry date, that it reaches an age where it's no longer beneficial (and if you speak to some people, they'd try to convince you it's harmful to you/the child/society!), but how do mother's really feel about it? Until around one hundred years ago, it was the cultural norm to breastfeed our babies until they self weaned. According to anthropologists the natural age of weaning for human infants would have been between three and five years old! Whilst some mother's feel they are ready to wean sooner, if you choose to continue you'll be one of many mamas around the world who make this choose - for a variety of reasons. Establishing breastfeeding can be tough going - it's like being handed a bike, when you've never seen or heard of one before and being told to ride it...ummmmmm. Once breastfeeding is established and you've worked through any challenges that might have cropped up in those first few months (or like some mamas, actually had a smooth ride from the beginning!) breastfeeding just gets easier and easier, and more enjoyable. It's not uncommon to feel in the first few weeks like you can't imagine continuing this for 6, 12, 18 months. But the reality is you won't be continuing with that version of breastfeeding - because it does get so much simpler, easier and more enjoyable as time goes on. How long SHOULD I breastfeed? We're told time and time again that the World Health Organisation recommends exclusive breastfeeding to six months, but people don't often mention that they actually their recommendation states breastfeeding should "be continued with complementary feeding (breastfeeding with other age-appropriate foods) until at least 24 months of age". How long you choose to breastfeed is just that - your choice. Every mother has a different goal when starting her breastfeeding journey, for some mothers the goal posts change along the way. Mums will choose to continue for any number of reasons. Mama Stephanie fed her little girl until she was almost five. "I never intended to feed so long but once she was here it just felt totally unnatural to put a time limit on. I fed her until she’d had enough." How does breastfeeding change beyond 12 months? By 12 months most babies are on a diet of primarily solid foods, including 3 main meals each day + snacks. Breast milk then becomes a vital and beneficial supplement to this diet. How often a child feeds beyond this age with vary a lot. You might be able to get some idea based on what your baby is like at a younger age - are they a comfort feeder? Do they feed to go off to sleep? Do they often ask for a feed when you're out, or if they're in an unknown situation? Or are they happy to just have feeds morning & night, or when offered to them through the day? This might give you an idea of what your child's feeding patterns will be beyond 12 months. Between 12-18 months some children will start to sleep through the night, and may cut down to 1-2 feeds per day (often first thing in the morning or before naptime/bedtime). For many mums, as breastfeeding goes on - it becomes easier and easier to continue as your child slowly starts to cut back on the time they feed for and how often they request a breastfeed. Do they really still NEED breastmilk beyond 12 months? They can have cow's milk after one, right? Well yes, they do...and yes, they can - technically! The NHS advises that children should be given full fat cow's milk as a drink from 12 months to 2 years as they 'need' the extra vitamins and minerals it contains. Let's explore this for a second... It is thought that dairy was first introduced into our diets in the form of fermented dairy like yoghurt around 6000 years ago. The reason humans at this time were eating fermented dairy is because they didn't have the necessary enzymes in their digestive system to process the high levels of lactose (this is something that is lost after infancy). It wasn't until the late 19th and early 20th century that milk began to be seen as a staple part of our diet. Given that our first human ancestors appeared on the earth over 5 million years ago, we survived (and thrived and evolved) as a species for 4,994,000 years without consuming dairy products other than our mother's milk. Food for thought! Every species has developed it's own very unique milk, designed particularly for their offspring and this wouldn't be capable of sustaining an infant of another species. Sheep's milk for instance is 5.7% protein and 7% fat, but they'd be unable to sustain their young on the milk of a camel which is only 3.2% protein and 3.8% fat. Check out this comparison below between just a few of the primary nutrients in human's milk and cow's milk....
These figures are shown, per 100ml of milk, and demonstrate just how vastly different cows and human's milk are - proving that breast milk is designed specifically for the needs of our infants and is able to change it's composition morning to night, day to day, to suit just what our baby or toddler needs at that period of time. It's also able to produce millions of antibodies (some specific to any illness your toddler may be trying to fight off at that time. Saliva passes from your little one into the breast and enables your body to produce specific antibodies to pass back to your little ones in breast milk.
Why do we choose to continue? For many mamas it appears to be more of a case of 'Why do we choose not to stop'. Joanna felt that she 'wasn’t willing to put him under unnecessary stress to stop him, as he obviously needed it. He was fine while I was away from home, but if around me he needed it.' Stephanie says she now knows 'it's a huge comfort and not just milk' and this encouraged her to continue breastfeeding as long as her little one wanted to. As a mother I felt very similarly about stopping breastfeeding - I didn't want to put myself or my daughter under the stress of actively trying to wean her from the breast, nor did I want to risk dealing with blocked ducts/mastitis during the weaning process, and I was so keen to continue giving her the benefits of breastfeeding for as long as we possibly could that I chose to allow her to wean naturally. She's now 2 1/2 and still breastfeeds once or twice per day. Seeing the comfort she recieves from this, and enjoying these quiet, close moments we have (in an otherwise quite chaotic life) I can't imagine it any other way. What about the opinions (oh all the opinions!)? It's fair to say many mums will feel anxious at the thought of continuing to breastfeed into toddlerhood, particularly if your child is one who still enjoys a comfort feed throughout the day and likes to feed anywhere and everywhere! The decision to breastfeed and how long to continue should remain yours and yours alone. It's important to do what feels right for you and your child. Most mums encounter nothing but support for their breastfeeding, but if you do fall victim to negative comments remember that this decision will affect you and your child (both physically and emotionally) for much of your lives...those members of the public who might be judgemental - you'll probably never see them again. Carolyn said "I had no idea how long I would breastfeed for, I just knew I wanted to give them the best start to life. In hindsight I think the thing I enjoyed most (after all the magical bonding times) was standing up to the people from Mums meet and in-laws who were very vocal about their disgust at people breastfeeding longer than a couple of months. It was a case of silently screaming “well you’d better look the other way then because I’m not letting my children miss out on the best start to life just to pander to your sensibilities”. As a lactation consultant - breastfeeding was vitally important for me, and I wanted to continue until my daughter was ready to self wean. However our journey was not without it's difficulties - tongue ties, nipple shields, blocked ducts, expressing - we certainly had our share of hurdles to overcome and it took almost 3 months before breastfeeding was something I felt I had mastered, before it felt simple and enjoyable. Looking back now, 2 1/2 years on, I am grateful every day that we persisted through those challenges. I still get so much joy seeing the way I'm able to calm my daughter with a breastfeed, the way she would sign for milk as soon as I got home even from 8/9 months of age. Not because she was hungry, but because it was her way of reconnecting with me after time spent apart. The way she can be overtired and being a crazy toddler (those times when it makes you question if they've found a secret stash of jelly beans in your house that you know doesn't exist! :), but you put them to the breast and their little eyelids flutter and close and they're fast asleep in minutes. Nutritional benefits, immunity benefits aside - that is the magic of natural term breastfeeding. Whether you choose to continue for you, for your child, or to be one more mama showing the world what natural term breastfeeding and positive breastfeeding looks like - know that you are giving your little ones the absolute best start you possibly could.