Extended Breastfeeding Has Been Normal Since The Stone Age

by Elizabeth Broadbent
Originally Published: 

I breastfed all my kids until age four. Talk about extended breastfeeding. I tandem-nursed all of them (meaning that I nursed two kids all the time, until my middle child weaned at four, after which I nursed my youngest until he was 4 and 1/2 years old). Turns out I wasn’t some nutty hippie. I was going back to my primal roots.

A study out of the University of Bristol found that our own ancestors actually practiced extended breastfeeding, or the practice of breastfeeding past the age of two, according to Kellymom. In fact, these mamas breastfed their babies way past the age of two: until age three or four, say scientists. Nowadays, we’re generally squicked by babies nursing past a year, and even some pediatricians will tell you breastmilk doesn’t do much after that, even though, as Kellymom says, “Breastfeeding continues to be a valuable source of nutrition and disease protection for as long as breastfeeding continues.”

By analyzing teensy amounts of stable calcium isotopes from 40 teeth of three different human species from South Africa — early Homo sapiens, Paranthropus robustus, and Australopithecus africanus — scientists determined that extended breastfeeding went way back. These calcium deposits only come from a mother’s milk, and can reliably tell us how long a baby nursed.

The early Homo sapiens babies nursed for three to four years. Scientists think this extended breastfeeding played a role in the development of important human traits, such as brain development. Meanwhile, Paranthropus robustus, which became extinct a million years ago and left no trace in the human lineage, only breastfed for a few months. Australopithecus africanus had similar nursing patterns — and according to some researchers, the relationship between Australopithecus africanus and modern humans remains unclear.

As the study says, “These differences in nursing behaviours likely come with major changes in the social structures of groups as well as the time between the birth of one child and the birth of the next.”

It seems like the extended breastfed babies won the evolutionary race, at least back then.

Now we have modern medicine. We have nourishing food. We’re not relying on skill to run antelope to exhaustion to put food on the table. So why bother with extended breastfeeding today?

We did it because it seemed like the right thing for our family. It just never seemed the right time to wean.

My oldest son always found comfort in it: it stopped him from crying when he was small, and as he aged from a baby to a toddler, it stopped those toddler tantrums in their tracks. It reassured him when he was afraid; it was his safe place. It soothed him to sleep when he woke at night (we also co-slept) without any effort on my part. So it just … worked. And when the new baby was born, he felt less displaced. He didn’t give up something important. He shared it. And he liked sharing it. He often held hands with his little brother while he nursed (totally heart-melting).

We knew extended breastfeeding also helped protect them from disease. The American Academy of Family Physicians has said that children weaned before two years of age are at increased risk of illness. We found that in our own family; the breastfed babies were often the only ones that didn’t catch whatever bug we were passing around, and if they did, they got a more mild case. If they did happen to pick up a stomach bug, breastmilk was usually the only thing they could tolerate.

But it’s even more than that. Extended breastfeeding can help our kids’ social, emotional, and mental development. Breastfeeding resource website Kellymom cites sources indicating that “studies have shown a positive relationship between longer breastfeeding duration and social development” and that “a shorter duration of breastfeeding may be a predictor of adverse mental health outcomes throughout the developmental trajectory of childhood and early adolescence.”

Now, what “a shorter duration of breastfeeding” means can be up for debate. So can “a longer breastfeeding duration” — we could pick apart studies and to see if they were talking about week and months or weeks and years. And if these studies were comparing weeks and months, or days and weeks of duration, could we extrapolate those results to extended breastfeeding?

Scientists are also hedging their bets. One scientist involved in the study says that, “The findings stress the need for further exploration of calcium stable isotope compositions in the fossil record in order to understand the co-evolution of weaning practices with other traits such as brain size or social behaviours.”

In other words, we need more information before we make claims that extended breastfeeding helped us develop the big brains that made us human.

So while it may have helped, and extended breastfeeding certainly worked for us … you do you, mama.

And that fossil record? What we know: our ancestors practiced extended breastfeeding. What we don’t know: what it meant. So rest easy if you’re not nursing your toddler. Rest easy if you are nursing your toddler. Rest easy if you never nursed your kid in your life, thank god for formula, and go on your merry way.

We’re not spearing antelope anymore, people.

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