Extended Breastfeeding and the Child’s Immune System

The other day, I was sitting at a birthday party, where an old man (my daughter’s great-grandfather, actually) told the others that he was breastfeed until he was five years old. That lead to some quite depressing reactions (from where I’m standing, having in fact breastfed my daughter until she weaned herself at 3 years and 8 months), and I was inspired to translate this blog post I wrote on one of my Norwegian blogs a few years ago.

In our part of the world, it’s not considered normal to breastfeed much longer than the child’s first birthday (if that!), and there are many strange attitudes towards extended breastfeeding. I’ve read everything from that mother is selfish and unable to let go of her baby, to that she’s only doing it for her own sexual (!) pleasure. Either way, it’s seen as something sick and perverse.

I’m not saying that these extremes don’t exist, they probably do, but they are in that case a minority. Most women who practice extended breastfeeding do it because they either follow their deep instincts despite of what culture is telling them, or they have read up and educated themselves about the biologic reasons they should do so. They have very sane and good reasons to do what they do.

One of the biggest benefits of extended breastfeeding, is the child’s immune system.

I’ll explain this in a minute, but first I want you to read this:

The number of people diagnosed with asthma grew by 4.3 million from 2001 to 2009. From 2001 through 2009 asthma rates rose the most among black children, almost a 50% increase. Asthma was linked to 3,447 deaths (about 9 per day) in 2007. Asthma costs in the US grew from about $53 billion in 2002 to about $56 billion in 2007, about a 6% increase. Greater access to medical care is needed for the growing number of people with asthma. American Academy of Allergy Asthma and Immunology

This is actually rather scary.

Asthma and allergies are often refered to as autoimmune diseases. What we are talking about here, is an over active immune system, playing the drama queen. The immune system is there to get rid of threatening dangers to the body like virus and bacterium, but in cases of asthma and allergies, the body simply decide to shoot down sparrows with cannon balls and go to war against harmless substances like pollen and other allergens.

So what does this have to do with breastfeeding, you ask.

Quite a lot, I answer.

You see, breastmilk contains antibodies against which ever illnesses mother and child gets exposed to, and which mother makes antibodies against. You know that you are immune against chickenpox if you had it as a child, right? This is exactly what I’m talking about here – those antibodies your body made in childhood, is still with you – and you express them in your breastmilk. When your baby nurses, you give him a small dose of those every time, like a tiny, natural vaccine. And if you and your child get sick now, your new antibodies will also help your child get well faster from whatever it is that you’re battling – making you a valuable support system while your child is still developing.

A child’s immune system isn’t ready and done before the child is about 6-7 years old. That’s one part of it.

The other part is that if we were to compare ourself to other species of our kind (which we should, as they still live in the natural world, uncontaminated by doctrines and should and shouldn’ts), we would see that other primates actually breastfeed until the offspring gets his first set of molars. And that, in human age, is in fact around 6-7 years of age.

I don’t think this is a coincidence. I think Nature in her wisdom has made it so the child can rely on his mother’s immune support until he’s old enough to handle it himself.

There is reason to believe that frequent infections of the respiratory system in early childhood predisposes for a development of asthma later, and in a Canadian report they conclude that children in daycare, who are still breastfed, has a much lower need of antibiotic treatment that children who are weaned.

It is also shown that breastfeeding protects against allergies and asthma – even if they are only talking about breastfeeding for the first 6 months.

Unfortunately, many believe that this only goes for the smallest children. But that’s not the case. Breastmilk contains antibodies and protection regardless of the child’s age. The benefits don’t just get turned off when the child reaches a certain age.

What would the statistics look like, if we hadn’t got it into our heads that extended breastfeeding is something perverse?

Maybe things would be completely different when it comes to allergies and asthma. It’s certainly something to think about.
Creative Commons License photo credit: various brennemans

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0 thoughts on “Extended Breastfeeding and the Child’s Immune System

  1. Hi Nienna,
    I wholeheartedly agree with you! I’ve breastfed my four children until they weaned themselves. My girls were ready with 16 months (probably due to interference of pregnancy hormones of the next sibling ;-)), my son weaned himself at 26 months. I didn’t think he was too big/old to be breastfed. We both enjoyed sitting in his semi-dark bedroom at night and I would hold him until he’d had enough and would slowly wander off to sleep. Those are the most precious memories!
    It didn’t make him a dependant child (in fact, he’s a very independant, selfassured, free child), it didn’t mean I tried to string him to myself and none of all the other weird prejudices.

    And whether it’s due to the breastfeeding or maybe also because I refused to start vaccining my kids at the tiny age of 8 weeks (we started at a way later age), but my kids are very healthy and strong, with no allergies or intolerances whatsoever …

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