Full disclosure: I breastfed my son until he was almost 2 years old. Another disclosure: this mostly wasn't my choice. He simply didn't want to wean. Ever. That being said, I'm grateful I had the option to do so. While breastfeeding wasn't easy at first, he did eventually take to it like a champ, and my lifestyle allowed it. I did not, however, think I'd be nursing a near 2-year-old child. Never in a million years. I wondered, how does breastfeeding your toddler affect them later in life? Is it a boon for him that I was lazy about weaning? Should I have worked harder to wean him earlier? Should I have been more upset when my daughter just dropped my boobs like a bad habit at 14 months?
As it turns out, if you're lucky enough to be able to prolong the period of time you breastfeed your child, there are myriad benefits for doing so. One surprising benefit found by researchers is that babies who have access to extended breastfeeding habits appear to experience better overall mental health throughout their childhood and adolescence, according to The Journal of Pediatrics (JAMA). And that's not the only mental benefit of prolonged breastfeeding. JAMA researchers found that babies who are breastfed for extended periods of time show significantly improved mental acuity and intelligence when they reach school age. And, unsurprisingly, they're healthier overall with such a large measure of protection from chronic noncommunicable diseases, found Advanced Biomedical Research.
There are real, valid reasons why people can't or don't breastfeed. And, unfortunately, there isn't a lot of scholarship out there on the practice of combo feeding (breast and formula), and almost no studies completed on the possible drawbacks both to the mother and the child of breastfeeding in less than perfect conditions. This is a hole in scholarship that deserves exploration and a heavy dose of reparation. Because of this, we are hamstrung to narrow our topics until they're able to be squeezed through the tiniest of focus lenses to achieve any sort of narrative accuracy.
What science does know is that there are pages and pages of scholarship dedicated to the benefits of breastfeeding, particularly extended breastfeeding, and those shouldn't be overlooked, either. So how does breastfeeding your toddler affect them later in life? Did you know that breastfeeding your child for extended periods of time helps protect them from allergies, particularly if they're already in a risk pool for atopic diseases? It's true, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). Children who are at risk for developing a life-threatening food allergy, meaning a parent or a sibling has such an allergy, are less likely to develop that allergy if they're breastfed exclusively for at least six months. And that protection? It continues to increase the longer they breastfeed.
And the benefits aren't just directly for the child. A big part of a healthy, happy family is the mother still being healthy and hale. A longitudinal study of women who practiced prolonged breastfeeding in Sri Lanka found that these women were at a significantly decreased risk for breast cancer than women who did not choose to breastfeed beyond the average period, according to Cancer Epidemiology. In hindsight, I'm glad I got to breastfeed for so long, given my family's history of breast cancer. I suppose I should thank my stubborn son.
While there are many documented benefits of breastfeeding your child up to and beyond the average period of time most women breastfeed, it's important to note that if it's not working for you, you shouldn't feel pressure to continue. But if it does work for you, go ahead. Don't let what society tells you is appropriate dictate how you feed your child. I know I got a lot of flack for nursing my baby boy to sleep at 20 months, but looking back, I wouldn't change that time for the world. Especially now that I basically have to tackle him if I want a cuddle.
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