Is Long Term Breastfeeding Harmful?

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On nursing my son I realise that at 31 months old there is more to his feeding than just milk transference. Which makes me think, especially after Dr Christian Jessen’s faux pas about breastfed older children becoming overly dependent on the mother, could there be any weight to this claim?

Breastfeeding (for me) thus far has been a joint decision between my son and I, I am happy to continue and he is happy to receive. It’s a mutual joint venture and one I am happy to continue with until he is ready to move on.

My 4th child and the one I am currently still feeding has always loved to feed from me, not taking solids until over a year he was happy on the breast, healthy and gaining weight well. I noticed quite early on that if I was to go out, to work or socially on my return the first thing he would do is ask to feed. To reconnect I guess.

But lets look into the Claims by Dr Christian that breastfeeding older children (long term breastfeeding) risks them becoming psychologically dependant on the mother, and the validity in his claims.

Firstly I will mention that both Unicef and the WHO recommend feeding a child for UPTO 2 years and BEYOND.

There has been arguments that this recommendation was primarily meant for those in 3rd world countries, however recommendation of feeding up to and beyond 2 years is also stated on the UK Unicef babyfriendly website, which so happens is endorsed by the NHS under their new acceptation of the breastfeeding friendly initiative.

If we look at the evolution of mammals and the rate at which they self-wean or the mother instigates weaning we see some curious results. Research done by Katherine A Dettwyler looked into various factors such as weight, eruption of teeth, sexual maturity and gestation length to estimate a ‘natural weaning age’ and used these findings to guesstimate a similar age for humans. Her results; 2.5 – 7yrs. And within this there will be natural variation such as: the child’s wants, genetical rates of later appearance of adult teeth and growth patterns.

Now it could be argued that as we have evolved we no longer need to breastfeed for longer as we have, good supplementary food, medicine and clean water. However, as Katherine points out just because we have this does it mean we should wean earlier? I guess that should be left up to the individual.

The issue of psychological dependency Dr Christian mentions can be quickly rebuked if we were to study attachment thesis by John Bowlby. Bowlby makes a point of saying:

“The propensity to make strong emotional bonds to particular indiviuals is a basic component of human nature.”

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We are biologically programmed to look for attachment with other humans and a good attachment in childhood Bowlby theorised, would mean a substantial better outcome for attachment in adults.

attachment characteristics

Image from psychology.about.com

So providing the breastfeeding journey is of mutual consent (and lets be fair we cannot make a child feed from a mother, they do it out of need not force), Then the idea behind Bowlby’s theory is the child will separate from the parent as they mature and become confident enough to take on life on their own, however having a secure base (so in case the bond of breastfeeding) they can build daily towards being separate from the mother. Which runs quite nicely with the theory of Katherine Dettwyler, as we see in countries where breastfeeding long term is wholly accepted and prevalent, an age of 3 onwards for child instigated weaning as suggested by a study carried out by anthropologist Clellan Stearns Ford. His study looked at 64 non western societies to determine this age.

Which kind of blows Dr Christian’s idea out of the water. And confirms for me the attachment theory Bowlby suggests, about ‘a secure base’ explains that whenever I come back home my child reconnects immediately to his secure base (mummy’s boobah). In the same way my older children come to me for a cuddle.

 

Breastfeeding: Biocultural Perspectives – Katherine A Dettwyler
A Secure Base – John Bowlby