There is no nutritional benefit to breastfeeding after twelve months. That’s what the pediatrician said who was interviewed with me on Peachtree TV this morning. (I have no idea whether that quote got aired or not because I haven’t seen the show yet, since it’s not online and I don’t have tv. But she said it in the interview.) I talked to her in the parking lot and got her to agree that her on-air statement wasn’t accurate; what she meant to say is that either breastmilk or formula is essential until twelve months, and after that point it’s no longer necessary. But obviously there’s a huge gap between “no longer essential” and “no benefits at all.”
The pediatrician was trying to argue that breastmilk can’t meet a child’s nutritional needs after twelve months, especially if the child is nursing infrequently (as most toddlers do). But to say that means it’s pointless or unnecessary is just silly. It’s like saying exercise is pointless unless you’re an Olympic athlete. Or organic food is pointless unless you’re never going to eat dessert. Sure, we’d be healthier if we were all Olympic athletes. But just because you everything something to its farthest extreme doesn’t mean it’s not healthy to do a little.
So. What are the benefits of breastfeeding a toddler?
1. Immunity booster. Don’t get me wrong; breastmilk isn’t magic rainbow unicorn dust. Don’t give your kid opened lollipops you got in the mail and claim breastmilk will protect them. Your boobs are not sorceror’s stones, ok? But breastmilk does give your child’s immunity a boost. And your body will sense what germs your toddler has been exposed to and manufacture antibodies while he’s nursing.
2. Ultimate tantrum stopper. Did I say breastmilk is not a magic elixir? I lied. When it comes to tantrums, it is magic rainbow unicorn dust. Actually it has less to do with the milk and more to do with the breasts, which makes sense, since that works for older people too. At least for guys. But for toddlers, it’s a universal cure with no gender bias: pull out the boobs and end tantrums instantly.
Is that a bad way to stop tantrums?
3. Rest opportunity. It lets mama sit still. Or better yet lie down. Hey, you didn’t think this was going to be all benefits for your child, did you? I definitely don’t think extended breastfeeding is something you do for yourself (and as I said in my interview, anybody who thinks extended breastfeeding is for the mom has obviously never nursed a toddler). But of course there are benefits for mom too. And sitting still is a big one. The only other time you get to do that is when you’re on the toilet, and that always gets interrupted.
4. Nutritional needs. Yes, breastmilk has nutritional value. In fact, it provides a large percentage of calcium, protein, fat, and vitamins. For a picky toddler who may or may not eat whatever healthy (or even unhealthy) food you offer him, it’s reassuring to know that breastmilk can round out his nutritional needs nicely. Whether as a supplement to cow milk or a replacement for it, human milk is a great way for a toddler to get calcium and protein. In fact, as new research comes out about toddler’s nutritional needs, a few companies are starting to push toddler formula as a substitute for cow milk during the second year. Most doctors are still saying that’s unnecessary, but human milk? Definitely does a body good.
5. Social development. Don’t take this the wrong way. I don’t want to in any way suggest that babies who are formula fed, or children who are weaned before a year, are less socially developed than nursing toddlers. But I will say this. Children who strongly desire to keep nursing will probably benefit from it socially. Not because it’s magic rainbow juice, but because meeting a child’s need for dependence is what helps him transition to independence. All kids eventually outgrow the need to breastfeed, but different kids outgrow that need at different times. If your child happens to be one of the ones who needs it longer than average, then yes, your child will probably benefit socially and emotionally by having that desire met.
Here’s the thing. Very few mothers sit down with their newborns and think, I’m gonna breastfeed this baby till he’s five. Most of us don’t plan to keep going till our kids hit elementary school. But starting to breastfeed is kind of like starting to read The Hunger Games. You only mean to read the first few pages. But next thing you know, it’s 3 am and you’re online buying the ebook of Catching Fire because you have to know what happens next. Because you just never got to a good stopping place. And for some kids, unless you decide ahead of time that you’re going to stop at a year, or at two years, or whatever arbitrary age you want to choose, there just may not be a good stopping place. Until your child decides he’s ready.
In the meantime, lying down and breastfeeding is a great opportunity to read The Hunger Games.