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Needless to say I was aghast that a medical professional who should have known better would say such a thing. However, this incident highlights a much larger issue within our culture. Many people, both within the medical community and outside of it, don't understand why in the world a mother would nurse a child who can walk, talk, and ask for "Nursies." They mistakenly assume that it is simply the result of a mother selfishly meeting some maternal need she perceives. What they fail to recognize is that mother's milk is still an extremely valuable source of nutrition, antibodies and long-chain fatty acids for an older nursling.
A 2005 study written up in Pediatrics showed that the milk of mothers who had been breastfeeding for over a year had significantly higher levels of fat content than that of mothers whose babies were younger. The researchers felt that the energy contribution from mother's milk to the child's diet was significant. Other research indicates that breastmilk continues to be a major source of other nutrients for as long as a child nurses. In fact, according to Dewey (2001), "Breast milk continues to provide substantial amounts of key nutrients well beyond the first year of life, especially protein, fat, and most vitamins." Her research indicates that 448 ml (about 15 oz) of breast milk fed to a child between 12 and 23 months old provides the following percentage of the daily requirement:
- 29 % of energy
- 43% of protein
- 36% of calcium
- 75% of vitamin A
- 76% of folate
- 94% of vitamin B12
- 60% of vitamin C
However, extended breastfeeding is good for mom, too! The longer a mother breastfeeds, the greater protection she has against pre-menopausal breast cancer, cervical cancer, osteoporosis and several other conditions. Some mothers who practice extended breastfeeding even report a delay in return of fertility.
Even if the breastmilk itself didn't offer significant benefits for baby, the intimacy with mom associated with nursing a toddler provides tremendous reassurance for a little one who is busy exploring his world. Nursing remedies a host of ills from a bleeding mouth to pain from shots. It is also a great way to help an older baby learn about delayed gratification, because unlike a newborn, a toddler doesn't need to nurse on demand.
So if you're thinking about nursing past a year, rest assured that you will be continuing to give your baby the very best possible nutrition. By extending the wonderful start he has had at your breast, you're continuing to give him a precious gift. He'll thank you for it every day!