We were asked recently by Ken:
Is there an age when a baby should stop breast feeding? What are the problems if a baby is breastfed too long?
Short answer: No. There is no age at which a baby should stop breastfeeding. Every benefit attributed to breastfeeding (or conversely, every harm possible from formula feeding) continues as long as the baby is breastfed.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that infants are breastfed exclusively for 6 months, and receive no milk substitutes till 12 months, and that mothers continue to breastfeed after that for as long as they enjoy it. The World Health Organization recommends that infants nurse, here and worldwide, for a minimum of two years.
I suspect the harm you suspect may be that the baby will enjoy breastfeeding and not want to wean. Well, it’s true, babies *do* enjoy nursing, and are reluctant to wean. According to an anthropologist expert in infant nutrition, the minimum weaning age for humans is somewhere between 2 1/2 and 7 years. So it’s only natural that encouraging weaning before this time may meet up with some resistance. For toddlers who are nursing, they most definitely know that they enjoy the taste of the milk, the warm milk in their belly, and being cuddled up to mom. Studies even show babies heart rate drop, their stress levels drop, and their blood pressure drops when they are nursing. It is definitely a good feeling. And in some parts of the world it is vital. Two year olds in Bangladesh who are weaned have a 50% higher mortality rate compared to two year olds there who are still nursing. Nevertheless, many moms manage to wean easily and gently at a time they choose. The older the child, the longer a weaning period should be planned for those moms who want to lead in weaning.
You may think that a nursing mother is tied down in some way. That is not really true, although she probably won’t want to spend vacations away from the baby while she is still exclusively breastfeeding (still possible of course but more complicated). Read our article on nursing past a year. Then check out “A Natural Age to Wean” by Kathryn Dettwyler, an anthropologist from Texas A&M; University.
Here are some of the dangers of weaning in the first year for mothers:
- higher chance of post-partum hemorrhage after birth in mother
- higher rates of breast, uterine, and ovarian cancer for mothers
- higher osteoporosis rates in mothers who formula feed.
Here are some of the dangers for the babies:
- higher rates of leukemia
- higher rates of breast cancer for daughters
- higher incidence of Crohn’s disease
- higher incidence of juvenile diabetes
- lower IQ
- more allergies and asthma
- more ear infections
- more SIDS
- more diarrheal infections
- more respiratory infections
- more bacterial meningitis infections
- more juvenile rheumatoid arthritis
- more Hodgkins disease
You can find a well thought out and documented list of reasons to breastfeed at ProMoM.
Keep in mind that the earlier you wean a baby, the higher the risks. But also bear in mind that there are millions of healthy, formula fed babies. Just because studies document increased risks of these diseases for formula fed babies does not mean that any formula fed baby is destined to be more ill. Studies document risks by looking at large numbers of babies to see the differences in the trends. Part of the importance in understanding these risks and information is applying it to your own situation. A woman with a history of breast cancer in the family would definitely want to reduce her chances by breastfeeding herself – since it would help lower her own risk as well as her daughter’s (if nursing a girl).
Ken, I think you’ve asked a very important question. You may not know it, but one of the number one reasons that women decide to formula feed is that they feel their husbands or partners do not support a decision to breastfeed.