How Breastfeeding Over A Year Changes Your Baby's Brain, According To Science

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I'm currently breastfeeding a baby for the third time and debating how long to continue. One son nursed for about 17 months, but I weaned the next one at 12 months because I had gotten pregnant again. That baby is now 7 months old and my age, sleeplessness, and general fatigue are catching up with me. My goal is to breastfeed him for at least a year, like the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends, but I'm not sure whether I want to go longer. I've read claims of how breastfeeding over a year changes your baby's brain, but is that even factual?

The benefits of breastfeeding are finally getting some air time in mainstream society. While many of our mothers and even grandmothers were discouraged from breastfeeding their babies, women today don't have to look far to find factual information on the benefits of choosing breast milk over formula. Not all of us choose to (or can) breastfeed our babies, but what's important is that we are making our choices from a more informed place, and that includes figuring out how long to continue breastfeeding.

A three-decades-long research study in Brazil, published in The Lancet Global Health, confirms that the longer a mother breastfeeds, the higher the child's chances of academic and professional success. In this study, babies who were breastfed for 12 months or more had higher IQ scores, more years of education, and higher monthly incomes than did those who were breastfed for less than one month.

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But the above study, and its inclusion of babies breastfed over 12 months, is the exception rather than the rule. While there is plenty of data available on the benefits of breastfeeding on a baby's brain, International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) Danielle Downs Spradlin tells Romper that most of the research focuses on younger babies.

"There are very few studies that include babies who are breastfed beyond 12 months," Spradlin says. "But breastfeeding can fill in nutritional gaps for a toddler's brain development. Toddlers are pretty challenging to feed a wide variety of nutrient-dense foods; we know that adequate nutrition is difficult for parents of toddlers, even in rich countries."

Healthy fats in particular are critical for the development of a toddler's brain, and the current trend of giving whole cow's milk to toddlers may not be making the grade. "Cow's milk is about 4 percent milk fat," Spradlin explains, "while human milk varies from 3 to 10 percent milk fat throughout the day." Fats are critical to brain growth, so that percent difference is not insignificant.

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In confirmation of the Brazilian research data, Spradlin points to one New Zealand study of babies breastfed for eight months or more that showed a connection to higher test scores and academic achievement. It can then possibly be reasoned that the difference in age between 8 months and 13 months wouldn't negate such benefits, and that babies over the age of 1 would be positively affected by breastfeeding as well.

While the AAP recommendation is that a mother continue breastfeeding her baby until his or her first birthday, the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that babies be breastfed until age 2 or beyond. This discrepancy is likely a difference in cultural norms: In much of the world, nursing 2 or 3-year-olds is completely normal, but in North America it is an anomaly. Part of the battle here in the States is breaking the stigma that it is "weird" to breastfeed a child who either has teeth or can talk.

"Breastfeeding a child at month 13 is extremely similar to breastfeeding a child at month 11, yet the social pressure to wean is amplified for the family of the 13-month-old," Spradlin says. The board-certified lactation consultant avoids labeling such nursing relationships as "extended breastfeeding," opting for vernacular like "full term breastfeeding" instead. "Calling it 'extended' implies that this breastfeeding is more than the child needs," she emphasizes. "We have enough pressure on moms today without using such value-laden language."