Recently The Paleo Mom published an article on The Development of Immune Tolerance in Children and it inspired me to write this post, one that I have been thinking about writing for quite some time. However, first, I feel the need to include a little preface. I know that talking about breastfeeding, and especially extended breastfeeding, can be a sensitive topic for many people. Not all women can or want to breastfeed and especially in the autoimmune community thyroid conditions, PCOS, and the need for medication steal the choice to breastfeed from many mothers. Not breastfeeding, whether by choice or necessity, does NOT make you a bad parent. It does NOT make you a lesser parent, and it does NOT mean that you didn’t give your child the best. Being fed and having a mother who is happy and healthy is always what is best. That being said, breastfeeding, when it is mutually enjoyed by child and mother, can offer some benefits in the areas of immune health and food sensitivities and extended breastfeeding specifically has a unique role to play.
What is Extended Breastfeeding?
Extended breastfeeding is simply the act of breastfeeding beyond the first year of a child’s life. In the United States it is a practice that is still seen as relatively uncommon, although it has gained some attention in recent years. While it might be culturally uncommon in the US, you might be surprised to know that it is actually recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics, The American Academy of Family Physicians, The World Health Organization, The Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine, The US Surgeon General, and a significant amount of scientific research. Most research and evolutionary data has found that the natural age for weaning is typically sometime after 2 years of age.
Nutritional Benefits of Extended Breastfeeding
“Why does a child need to breastfeed when they can eat solid food?” you may be asking yourself. Not addressing the social and emotional component of breastfeeding, human milk in the second year postpartum has actually been found to contain more protein, fat, digestive enzymes, and immunoglobulin A than the milk produced in early infancy. (source) In fact, 448 ml (about 15oz) of breastmilk can provide a toddler with 29% of their energy requirements, 43% of their protein requirement, 36% of their calcium requirement, 75% of their Vitamin A requirements, 76% of their folate requirements, 94% of their vitamin B12 requirements, and 60% of their vitamin C requirements. (source) This goes a long way in making sure that a toddler’s nutritional needs are met in a stage of life where it is natural for their appetite to vary and their preferences in food to not necessary lend themselves to balanced nutrition.
How Does This Relate to Immune Health and Good Allergies?
Good question. It is natural for parents with food allergies and autoimmune conditions to worry about the genetic predisposition that their children may possess to the same, so you might wonder what role extended breastfeeding could play in mitigating the risk of allergy or autoimmune development. In her article on this topic, Dr. Sarah Ballantyne looks at the research addressing the timing of food introduction in children, particularly the introduction of the top 8 allergenic foods (eggs, wheat, dairy, soy, fish, shellfish, peanuts, tree nuts and eggs) what she found is a likely connection between breastfeeding and food introduction leading to lower incidences of food allergies and some related autoimmune conditions like celiac disease. What is likely at play here is that immune factors like immunoglobulin A (IgA) coat the lining of the gastrointestinal tract, keeping food particles from escaping and triggering an immune response. In turn, the food is allowed to be digested and the body can experience it as food rather than a harmful foreign invader and the likelihood of a negative or autoimmune response is diminished. Also, in the event of an allergic reaction, breastfeeding encourages faster and more complete healing and offers immune modulating benefits. Finally, there is also research that has shown that longer durations of breastfeeding are associated with a decreased risk of inflammatory immune conditions like asthma, eczema and allergies (source).
My daughter is now 18 months old and is still breastfeeding. She was exclusively breastfed for 6 months before we started introducing solid food. She took to eating solids very quickly and was eating full meals well before her first birthday. We chose to keep her on a modified AIP template (we included egg yolks) until her first birthday. After her first birthday she started drinking almond milk and water and eating some nuts with no problems. I have slowly introduced foods into her diet following the same guide suggested in The Paleo Approach. She was accidentally exposed to gluten and had a very negative reaction, but so far that is all that she has reacted to. Personally, I have found tremendous peace of mind in breastfeeding her throughout her introduction to solid foods because it has allowed me to feel like I can adequately help her heal following negative reactions and offer her the best chance at not reacting to foods that I may be personally sensitive to. My hope is that by the time she is ready to wean she will be able to enjoy a broad variety of foods safely and that we will have a solid understanding of what foods she can eat and what foods she should avoid so that she can live with reduced inflammation and remain healthy and strong, hopefully avoiding chronic illness down the road. Breastfeeding has also helped to keep my ulcerative colitis in remission for the most part so that has been an added benefit for me.