Super Extended Breastfeeding: What Your Ancient Ancestors Did
Every mom will make her own personal decision about when to wean their baby from breastfeeding. Maybe it happens at 3 months, and maybe at 3 years.
Only you and your doctor can decide when to wean your baby. This process often considers demands on work-life balance, finances, convenience and schedules, health, nutrition, and your child's own emerging preferences.
Enough about that, what did my ancient ancestors do!?
Scientists have long studied breastfeeding and weaning patterns by examining fossilized remains of our ancient ancestors.
Specifically, by analyzing the type and extent of calcium deposits on fossilized teeth, scientists can estimate how often (frequency) and long (duration) early human ancestors were breastfed.
A group of scientists from the Universities of Bristol and Lyon (in UK and France) recently examined about 40 teeth from fossilized remains dating back over a million years, and published their results in the journal Science Advances.
The scientists found evidence that there were large variations in how long our ancient ancestors were breastfed. When looking across three ancient early hominin groups, they found that some groups were breastfed for only a few months (Paranthropus robustus and Australopithecus africanus), whereas the early Homo group showed evidence of frequent breastfeeding until they were 3 to 4 years old!
Now that's what we call extended breastfeeding!
What does this tell me about my ancestors?
A few interesting additional patterns emerged in their data.
First, the groups that continued to breastfeed for longer periods of time also showed larger gaps between successive births. In other words, they tended to not have another baby until their first child was over about 3-4 years old.
Second, the Homo group tended not to introduce as many transitional or adult foods to younger children, likely lessening the food and resource demands imposed on the community.
Finally, they also suggested that these early differences in breastfeeding patterns likely shaped the nature of social patterns, brain size, and group demographics.
They can't say for sure, but these early Homo behaviors may have led to key evolutionary changes that altered the course of modern human development, including brain size, and intellectual and social capacity.
When should I wean my baby?
Good question. According to KellyMom, a leading resources for all things breastfeeding, the weaning process begins automatically once you start introducing solid foods. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), in most cases solid foods should be introduced around 6 months of age, and for optimal nutrition babies should be exclusively breastfed until at least that time.
The AAP also suggests that breastfeeding should continue for at least the first year of life, as long as it is appropriate and desirable for mom and baby. By the way, according to many studies, nursing beyond a year old continues to offer considerable benefits for your toddler's health and development. Babies get much heavier through their first year of life, so be sure to pick up a great nursing pillow to help support your baby while breastfeeding!
But does that mean this guidance will work for your situation? Not necessarily. You need to make your own determination after consulting with your pediatrician and partner, and considering the nutritional value of your child's current diet.
What if I'm not breastfeeding?
No mom should feel guilty about deciding not to breastfeed, or for deciding to supplement breastfeeding with formula. Moms have enough to worry about without this pressure.
It's also important to realize that many of the best baby formulas are getting very close to matching the complex nutritional profile of breast milk, making them a great supplement to (and even replacement for) breast milk.
But, if you want to be more like your ancient ancestors, your role as Dairy Queen is going to last quite a bit longer!