Research shows extended breastfeeding has overwhelming benefits to mother and child.
As an advocate of extended breastfeeding for the benefit of mothers and children, I was pretty miffed to read this article today http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-2146870/Breastfeed-year-old-Thats-just-selfish-wrong.html. Dr Cannon’s views, of course, are nothing new but it got me thinking about how scary it is that our medical profession are so ill-informed and, therefore dangerous, when it comes to providing advice regarding extended breastfeeding.
Everyone is entitled to their opinion, of course, but this article is just frittered with falsehoods that I will address one by one. In this article, Dr Ellie Cannon says:
1. ”There is little evidence of any health benefits beyond the age of one. Breastfeeding babies is natural and normal – but in my opinion, breastfeeding your child up until three or even later is unnecessary.” Wrong, wrong, wrong. The World Health Organization (WHO) officially recommends mothers breastfeed until three years of age. (Yes, you did read that right!) Even the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends mothers should breastfeed “at least until one year of age and then as long as baby and mother mutually want to.” They make these recommendations because of the wealth of evidence of health benefits for extended breastfeeding for mother and child. For mum it reduces the risk of uterine, ovarian, and breast cancers and they have a lower incidence of osteoporosis later in life. For children,it reduces the chances of gastrointestinal illness, upper respiratory illness, multiple sclerosis, diabetes, heart disease, and on and on and on. Likewise, the babies nursed the longest scored the highest on the IQ tests.
2.”The attachment parenting crowd argue this is the way parents have been doing things for thousands of years. I’m not an anthropologist, but I do know that we’re living in an era when these things are not the norm.” Well, that is the point isn’t it, that what is the ‘norm’ isn’t actually biologically normal. And no you are not an anthropologist, but Katherine Dettwyler is. A world renowned one at that, and she argues that, “In terms of the benefits of extended breastfeeding, there have been a number of studies comparing breastfed and bottlefed babies in terms of the frequency of various diseases, and also IQ achievement. In every case, the breastfed babies had lower risk of disease and higher IQs than the bottle-fed babies. In those studies that divided breastfed babies into categories based on length of breastfeeding, the babies breastfed the longest did better in terms of both lower disease and higher IQ. In other words, if the categories were 0-6 months of breastfeeding, 6-12 months, 12-18 months and 18-24+ months, then the 18-24+ month babies did the best, and the 12-18 month babies did the next best, and the 6-12 months babies did the next best, and the 0-6 months babies did the worst of the breastfed groups, but still much better than the bottlefeeding group. This has been shown for gastrointestinal illness, upper respiratory illness, multiple sclerosis, diabetes, heart disease, and on and on and on. Likewise, the babies nursed the longest scored the highest on the IQ tests”.
3.”no health professional would officially recommend co-sleeping, as there are concerns the baby is at increased risk from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome“. Um, yes they would and they do - in ambundance. A 1997 Pediatrics article outlined a study that observed night-time breastfeeding behavior in mother-infant pairs. The study found that co-sleeping led to increased breastfeeding. Because breastfeeding has been shown to have a protective effect against SIDS, then co-sleeping, which facilitates breastfeeding, might be protective against SIDS.
Another article published in Pediatrics suggests that co-sleeping has protective effects against SIDS because of an increase in the infant’s arousals and the mother’s responsiveness when the pair is co-sleeping. Just this week, an announcement was made to the press that SIDS was reduced by breastfeeding – Queensland-based author of the SIDS review and safe sleeping expert, Adjunct Professor Jeanine Young, said consistent findings of studies over the past 15 years showed that along with maternal and infant health benefits, breastfeeding helped reduce the risk of SIDS.
4.”The worry of many developmental psychologists is that extreme breastfeeding dampens this natural stage of a child’s development and serves only to indulge the mother: it gives her attention and a purpose“. This is just utter hogwash. Most developmental psychologists view attachment as incredibly important for optimum emotional health. Dr Penelope Leach (Your Baby Your Child, 1995), conducted an anonymous survey of 150 infant health professionals and infant mental health professionals from 56 countries who were members of the World Association for Infant Psychiatry and Allied Disciplines. When asked what level of attachment they considered to be the best from birth to 36 months, the majority said that from the infant’s point of view it was ‘very important’ for babies to have their mothers available to them ‘through most of each 24 hours’ for more than a year and ‘ideal’ for infants to be cared for ‘principally’ by their mothers for durations averaging 27 months’.
5. “Children are sexually aware from a young age. They become interested in body parts and what they do. Breastfeeding a child old enough to walk over to his mother and open her shirt creates a confusing message about personal boundaries and our bodies.” Honestly, I don’t even know where to start with this one. Are there really still intelligent people in the civilised world who would believe this? Maybe so, but I like to think that most parents know that affection, love, closeness, and attachment doesn’t ‘confuse’ a child, and there are no sexual overtones at all. All they feel is love and connection with their parents. Why would adults, particularly a medical professional, try to turn something so beautiful into something ugly. As Dettwyler says, “Extended breastfeeding is NORMAL for our species. Another important consideration for the older child is that they are able to maintain their emotional attachment to a person, rather than being forced to switch to an inanimate object such as a teddy bear or blanket. I think this sets the stage for a life of people-orientation, rather than materialism, and I think that is a good thing. I also can’t imagine living through the toddler years without that close loving connection to a child going through enormous changes, some of which are very frustrating to the child”
In conclusion, the evidence shows clearly that there are overwhelming benefits to both mother and child to practice extended breastfeeding. What would be nice is for the medical profession to become better informed about this, especially when they are writing about it in the popular press and have great influence on new mothers. My arguments on this subject are developed much more eloquently and in much greater detail in the Chapter – The Socialisation of Mothers in my book, The Shepherdess. www.asktheshepherdess.com.
Penelope Leach (Your Baby Your Child, 1995)
Katherine Dettwyler, The Natural Age to Wean, http://www.kathydettwyler.org/detwean.html