How long should a child breastfeed?
The World Health Organization recommends 6 months of exclusive breastfeeding and continued breastfeeding with the addition of appropriate complementary foods until at least 2 years of age.
Most women in Western societies do not follow these recommendations, largely because of complex cultural barriers including employment pressures, aggressive formula marketing, and commercialisation of breasts as sex objects.
Breastfeeding a child who can walk and talk has become so rare that even the idea is viewed with disgust (and tragically, the sight of it has been reported to have generated hostility up to the point of threats by the general public).
But natural weaning (breastfeeding until your child matures enough to find other activities more engaging) is an easy and optimal way to start your new vegan on the road to lifelong optimal health. Breastfeeding continues to nourish and protect so you can rest assured, with no need for expensive supplementary products, while your child develops a taste for the full range of healthy plant foods your family enjoys.
Benefits are shown for:
- immune system
- cognitive development
- obesity and nutrition
- bone density
- dental development
- mother-child attachment
- mother's health
Thanks to support and information I got from our local La Leche League New Zealand as well as my own family, I have beaten the cultural odds and practiced natural weaning with both of our vegan children. I am absolutely satisfied with this. My children would not even accept solids until well after 7 months and my son was more than a year old before he ate any real quantities. Yet their nutrition was solid even when their food wasn't.
A bit uncomfortable?
The average biological age of weaning for humans has been assessed as between 2 to 7 years - but this is not discussed in many antenatal classes or mothers' groups in your average suburban neighbourhood. Luckily, there is plenty of information available these days to fill in what has become an odd gap in Western mothering compared to many other countries in the world (and not only "developing" countries.)
Start by reading about the myths.
If you are a vegan who plans to have children, don't miss the classic Pregnancy, Children, and the Vegan Diet by Michael Klaper, M.D. Along with a reassuringly full treatment of nutrition requirements and recipes, you will see a beautiful photograph of a vegan mother (Victoria Moran) feeding her no-longer-infant daughter Rachael.
And you might even want to read the full story in Breastfeeding Older Children.
Breastfeeding IS vegan
Let's dismiss this myth once and for all.
Breast milk is not a dairy product!
Yes, breast milk is milk. But it is actually (unlike the dairy marketing slogan) the perfect food made for your baby.
Vegans don't object to lactating mammals feeding their babies - that would be like objecting to rainfall. We object to humans stealing that perfect food from the animal mothers who produce it for their own babies. We object to the exploitation of the animals who have not chosen to donate their milk. And of course, we object to the systemic industrial cruelty to those animals and the health impact on humans from consuming the milk of other species.
This has no connection to the natural breastfeeding relationship. While a breastfeeding mother is certainly at her baby's service, it is by choice as well as by nature. And it is also by no means the last time in their lives that she will relinquish her own needs in favour of her child!
I was a vegan before becoming a mother - becoming a breastfeeding mother made me even more aware of the insanity and cruelty of the dairy industry.
Of course, you can raise a child vegan from birth using soy or another dairy-free formula. But be aware that any formula does not support your child's health in the same way as breastfeeding. It is not even the second choice for the WHO - the order of preference is:
- Your own breast milk, expressed
- Another mother's breast milk
- Artificial baby milk
Yes, although this may seem "icky" to someone raised as we were, it is better for your baby to drink the milk from another (healthy) woman's breasts than artificial baby milk from the store.
Breast milk also scores highly for being fresh and unprocessed as well as superbly environmentally friendly compared to other choices.
There are many reasons why a mother may choose an alternative to breastfeeding. But I hope that all vegetarian and vegan parents (often vitally aware of their own health and nutrition choices) can make feeding choices for their children from full knowledge, not artificial cultural pressures.
There are barriers on any "road less travelled", whether it is veganism or natural weaning. As one who has travelled both, I know that the philosophy of being confident in my choices is the same, and education is the path to that confidence.
You do not need to eat meat because your auntie wishes you would eat her Christmas roast turkey, and you do not need to stop breastfeeding your child because she says "They're too old when they can ask for it."
You do not need to feed your child eggs because your best friend read that "vegan diets are dangerous for children - practically child abuse!" Neither need you be swayed by those who are shocked by an "older" child breastfeeding because of perceived sexuality.
You do not need to eat fish because your workmate tells you that it's silly to care so much because "They're just animals!" Neither should you accept an opinion that you are being manipulated by your child when you breastfeeding over an "acceptable" age.
You do not need to drink cow's milk because your doctor (who has almost no nutritional training) says you need it for the calcium. Why then listen to that doctor (who has even less breastfeeding training) who says that breastmilk has no value past the first few months?
Safety in numbers
The same WHO that recommends a protein level of less than 10% of total calories (highly compatible with your vegan diet) also recommends that children be breastfed past the age of one or even two...
And when families around us choose to follow those recommendations, their example is the strongest recommendation of all.
The results speak for themselves...