A new study on breastfeeding argues that the social stigma against breastfeeding past the age of 12 months is preventing mothers from continuing the practice, despite the evidence speaking to the health benefits of breastfeeding even beyond the first year.
Researchers from the Faculty of Nursing at the University of Calgary looked at 24 scientific studies on breastfeeding beyond infancy and found some research supportive of the commonly held contention that while it does no harm to the child if supplemented with other food intake, breastfeeding beyond infancy doesn’t confer any benefits to the child.
Yet the authors also highlight more recent studies which speak to the health benefits -for baby and mother- of longer-term breastfeeding. For one, the well-known immune-protective effects of breast-milk are now thought to be dose-dependent, meaning that additional long-term benefits may be had from breastfeeding beyond infancy. For another, associations have been uncovered between increased breastfeeding duration and a reduced risk of some childhood cancers, obesity and diabetes, as well as a reduced risk of maternal type 2 diabetes and pre-menopausal breast and ovarian cancer.
While prevalent in the developing world, breastfeeding beyond infancy is less common in the West, where the social stigma attached to the practice represents a significant impediment.
Studies have shown that the stigma against longer-term breastfeeding is such that for women in the West, at least, the practice is usually done in secret and referred to as “closet nursing.” Despite the cultural pressure, however, the practice does occur, usually taking place organically rather than in a planned fashion. One study in Australia found that 76 per cent of mothers who breastfed past infancy had not originally intended to do so.
“In Western society, parenting has become a subject of intense social scrutiny,” say the study’s authors. “Women who breastfeed long term are subject to negative social stigmatization and these negative societal opinions increase as the child ages.”
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A recent joint statement by the World Health Organization, UNICEF and the International Baby Food Action Network claims that laws to protect breastfeeding are inadequate in most countries around the world, with richer countries faring worse than poorer ones. The desired protection comes in the form of prohibitions against the inappropriate marketing of breast-milk substitutes (including infant formula) and a ban on advertising, gifts to health workers and distribution of free samples of formula. According to the joint statement, only 23 per cent of countries in the Americas (eight out of 35) have sufficient legislation. Canada currently does not have a prohibition on the marketing of infant formula.
“There are still far too many places where mothers are inundated with incorrect and biased information through advertising and unsubstantiated health claims,” says Dr. Francesco Branca, Director of the WHO’s Department of Nutrition for Health and Development. “This can distort parents’ perceptions and undermine their confidence in breastfeeding.”
Worldwide, the breast milk substitute industry is a $45 billion (USD) business, projected to rise by over 55 per cent to $70 billion by the year 2019. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that children breastfeed until 2 years and beyond.