A viral photo of a science project showcases the healing power of breast milk, and it makes a compelling case for breastfeeding well beyond a baby’s first birthday.
Vicky Greene, a first-year biosciences student at South Devon College in the U.K., put breast milk from the mother of a 15-month-old and a 3-year-old in Petri dishes containing the bacteria M. Luteus.
She posted a photo of the experiment on Facebook which showed space between the bacteria and the breast milk, almost like a wall keeping the bacteria from getting too close to milk. Greene said she used the experiment as a way to showcase that breastmilk’s antimicrobial properties may persist well beyond the age many end breastfeeding.
“The white spots in the middle are discs soaked in two samples of breastmilk,” she said. “See the clear bit around the discs? That’s where the proteins in the milk have inhibited the bacteria…It also worked with E. coli and had a fairly good go at MRSA too.”
Babies who breastfeed tend to have fewer infections and lower rates of asthma and obesity, according to Rebecca Starck an OB/GYN at the Cleveland Clinic.
“It’s phenomenal to recognize this is a natural product…We try to mimic breast milk with formula, but there is no way to recreate what breast milk can provide the infant,” Starck said pointing to breast milks antibacterial characteristics.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that babies be breastfed exclusively for six months, and continue to breastfeed along with food for a year after that or as long as desired. In the U.K., it’s recommended that women breastfeed exclusively for the first six months and give breast milk along with food for the next two years, according to the U.K.’s National Health Services.
Greene, who is the mother of three children, told the Huffington Post that she is still breastfeeding her 3-year-old.
“I have been on the wrong end of judgment about my breastfeeding choices, and I’m fed up of it,” she told the Huffington Post.
But is there a time to stop? There’s a lot that goes into the decision of whether a woman will continue breastfeeding or stop, including whether she is actually able to produce enough milk or other health reasons, according to Angela Mattke, M.D. in Community Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine at Mayo Clinic in Rochester.
“If it’s working for both the mother and child and the child is also getting good nutrients from their diet because they can’t survive on breast milk alone … I think it’s something they can do and there is no reason to stop in most cases,” Mattke said.
In the United States and other countries, the practice of breastfeeding in public has become much less taboo, but there is still some stigma around breastfeeding toddlers.
“Often times women are hard on each other and will be almost critical of those folks, friends or other women who decide to breastfeed for extended periods of time beyond 1 to 2 years. It’s a personal choice and there is no right or wrong answer,” Starck said.
Pushes for breastfeeding longer should in no way make women who are unable to breastfeed feel like they aren’t adequately providing for their children, both doctors agree.
“Formula will provide the nutrients they need,” Mattke said. “They are unable to match formula exactly to the same benefits you get from the immune defense standpoint and GI perspective, but it will provide the nutrition they need to grow and thrive. The guilt needs to be put away, the judgement needs to be put away because everyone’s choice is personal.”