Extended Breastfeeding and Introducing Solids – Ending Breastfeeding, Iron Supplementation, and Sleep

As my little bundle of joy, Nicholas, is approaching the 6 months mark, I thought I would share some information about extended breastfeeding and introducing solids. Many of you have asked about my family’s diet (read more here), including what I feed my little boys. Here are some answers, including both facts and personal experience.

Extended Breastfeeding and Introducing Solids

When should one stop breastfeeding? I believe that the decision to stop breastfeeding should come from the child, not from well-meaning family members, friends, or the medical community. Unfortunately, many people see breast milk as a source of nourishment, and nothing else. The child cannot eat solid, therefore he gets breastmilk. Once solids are introduced, breastmilk is no longer needed. Ironically, many people then switch to formula at this point, clearly showing that solids are not enough at such a young age.

The truth is that breastmilk is so much more. No bottle, no mashed banana, can replace the wonderful intimacy you get to share with your child when he is cradled in your arms and either drinking from your breast or simply sucking for comfort. Can you imagine the difference you child feels between sucking on a pacifier, or sucking on your warm breast while you hold him and gently rock or sing to him?

But, people often stop breastfeeding after a few months as they are worried a few problem will occur. Personally, I will keep nursing Nicholas for as long as he desires, or until I just can’t take it anymore. Considering I nursed Franklin for 3 full years, and for a few months after I got pregnant with Nicholas, I know it will be for a few good years.

Note that I am not 100% against pacifiers. When Franklin was very little, I made too much milk and he would go on a suck/spit frenzy, so I used a pacifier for while so he could suck on something, and I would hold him close to me to compensate.

Can a child get enough nutrition through breastmilk only?

We have yet to see people stock up on puppy formula and puppy food in anticipation for their dog’s new litter. Yet, people everywhere have this fear that their breastmilk will not be enough. At first, breastmilk is not very abundant, and the amount of colostrum one has is relatively minuscule. As a result, babies do lose weight, but it is absolutely normal. Through sucking, a mom’s milk supply will increase, and she will quickly produce as much as the baby needs, if not more. A well meaning mother might give her child formula in these early days, but this will cause more harm than good because her child will not breastfeed as much because of it, and her milk supply will not build up.

A doctor at the hospital actually tricked me into giving Franklin formula. I was in massive pain from a botched epidural and my husband was exhausted. We were pretty easy to convincethat it was the best thing for our baby boy. It did not help that several nurses asked me if I had leaked colostrum during my pregnancy, only to stare at me silently when I would answer “no”.

Not long after though, I ended up with such a large milk supply that I had to breastfeed Franklin lying on my back, with him on my tummy and his head supported by my hands, because he would otherwise choke on the very forceful letdowns!

Yes, a child can, and should, only get breastmilk for the first 6 months. A 2002 study found that “Infants who are exclusively breastfed for six months experience less morbidity from gastrointestinal infection than those who are mixed breastfed as of three or four months, and no deficits have been demonstrated in growth among infants from either developing or developed countries who are exclusively breastfed for six months or longer.

But won’t a child be iron deficient on just breastmilk?

I believe strongly that for the wide majority of infants, iron supplementation is not recommended. A 2002 study found that: “Growth [of infants given a placebo or given an iron supplement] was measured monthly and morbidity data were collected every 2 weeks. (…) Gains in length and head circumference were significantly lower in those who received iron than in those given placebo from 4 to 9 mo. (…) Among infants with Hb < 110 g/L at 4 mo, diarrhea was less common among those given iron than in those given placebo from 4-9 mo, whereas the opposite was true among those with Hb [Hemoglobin, through which iron levels are measured] > or = 110 g/L (P < 0.05). We conclude that routine iron supplementation of breast-fed infants may benefit those with low Hb but may present risks for those with normal Hb” (Dewey, 2002).

But, if we can’t give supplements, shouldn’t we introduce solids?

No, because normal children will generally not develop deficiencies for at least the first 6 months. A 2008 study published in the International Breastfeeding Journal found that “Exclusively breastfed infants of non-anemic and anemic mothers did not develop iron deficiency or iron deficiency anemia by six months of age” and it is well established that for the first 6 months, iron levels are not a worry.

Now, let’s be realistic, if iron levels are fine in breastfed babies for 6 months, do they suddenly become at risk for anemia at 6 months + 1 week? If your iron levels were good before getting pregnant, your child’s iron levels were good too and deficiencies are improbable even after the first 6 months.

What about after 6 months? Should one still breastfeed exclusively?

Many people believe that at 6 months, solids should be introduced, and breastfeeding is no longer needed. As mentioned above, the mere fact that parents use formula or at least something other than solids to ensure that their kids is well nourished clearly shows that solids alone are not enough at that stage. In my opinion, breastfeeding is still a necessity.

What people do not know however, is that delaying solids a little bit longer is not only harmless, it can be extremely beneficial.

As Dr Sears explains:

Between four and seven months a baby’s intestinal lining goes through a developmental growth spurt called closure, meaning the intestinal lining becomes more selective about what to let through. To prevent potentially-allergenic foods from entering the bloodstream, the maturing intestines secrete IgA , a protein immunoglobulin that acts like a protective paint, coating the intestines and preventing the passage of harmful allergens.

Allergies are rampant nowadays, and there’s more to it than just increasingly sterile environments (believed to lead to allergies because the immune system mistakes normal molecules for allergens to compensate). Yes, feeding our little babies is fun, but it will be more fun if we are not constantly on the look-out for that pesky peanut or other food which will send our kids into anaphylactic shock.

A study reported by Nancy Mohrbacher and Julie Stock in their book the Breastfeeding Answer Book found that delaying solids by a mere month can increase nutrient absorption by 60% later in life.

Really, I don’t think that parents should worry if their child does not eat solids for another month. Let’s be clear, solids are not going to make up the child’s entire diet yet, and most of it will end up on the high chair, his face, etc. At that stage, solids are just for exploration and fun, and a little bit of it becomes a source of nutrition, though not much. If by waiting another month, I can give my child a better chance at being healthy, why not?

That being said, I personally did introduce solids at 6 months because Franklin was ready. He would try to reach for food, and we need to keep in mind that our babies know instinctively what they need – and if they feel they want to start experimenting with food at 6 months, then we should respect their wishes.

Will solids “help my child sleep through the night?”.

Parents have been sneaking spoonfuls of rice cereal in their baby’s bottle for generations, and it never did make them sleep through the night, contrary to common belief. Mark Weissbluth, an expert on child sleep, says in his book that people who recommend filling up the child’s stomach before bed, whether it’s with formula, breastmilk or solid, are only showing their, and I quote, “profound ignorance” when it comes to sleep. He argues that sleeping through the night is not something that happens in the stomach, it’s something that happens in the brain. While it is true that a hungry child won’t sleep long, a well-fed child won’t necessarily sleep 10 hours straight.

In summary

Breastmilk is your baby’s favorite fuel for the first 6 months. Some babies will request food earlier, but such instances are rare. Healthy mothers and babies should not fear deficiencies if breastmilk is your baby’s sole food source for the first 6 months. Afterwards, pay attention to your child’s cues. Do not insist on introducing solids if he does not seem ready. If he shows signs of wanting food, you can feel confident that he is ready and can start experimenting with tastes and textures. For the first year, breastmilk will often still remain the main food source.

About joanna

About Joanna Steven is an Amazon best-selling author, an attachment parenting mom to 2 boys, and a lover of food. Her mission is to inspire mothers and make their life easier so they feel nurtured, nourished, and better able to raise children in a peaceful way. She regularly updates her blog with delicious, wholesome recipes, and lifestyle tips for moms seeking to live motherhood to the fullest.

2 comments on “Extended Breastfeeding and Introducing Solids – Ending Breastfeeding, Iron Supplementation, and Sleep

  1. Hi Joanna,
    I am in total agreement about extended breastfeeding, but have you read some of the more recent research about infant allergies and sensitization? There is not a scientific consensus yet but it appears that the former guidelines about introducing allergenic foods late were wrong (and have been scrapped) and some research now points to *early* introduction of foods as being a way to help lower incidence of allergies. Two studies (for example): http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23810152 and http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20920771?dopt=Abstract (both about egg allergy).

    • I agree 🙂 I’m not too strict about introducing new foods once baby starts to have solids. But, I do introduce one food at a time, to check for reactions.

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