The Anthropological: Breastfeeding & Weaning

Here is the last in my Katherine Dettwyler series. Part of a lecture from one of her Anthropology classes, which I’ve done my best to convert into a post.

(shared with permission)

The Anthropological: Breastfeeding & Weaning


  • Kingdom- Animalia (animal)
  • class- Mammalia (mammal)
  • order- Primata (primate)

Humans are most closely related to Great Apes. (Organgutans, Gorillas, Chimpanzees)


Great Ape Nature: Social, reliance on learned behavior, and able to make and use tools.

Human Nature: Humans nature differs from great ape nature only in degree, not kind.


  • Patterns of beliefs and practices, that lead to different styles of parenting and different expectations of children
  • patterns of ideas and behaviors that shape the way we live
  • culture is shared and learned
  • culture can be adaptive or maladaptive
  • culture can change rapidly or be very conservative and resistant to change

Breastfeeding in Mammals:  Like all other mammals, humans have mammary glands that produce fluid, known as milk.  Lactation/breastfeeding provide all mammal offspring with: Protective factors to prevent disease Curative factors to recover from disease Essential growth factors for normal development of the brain and body State regulation (respiration, heart rate, blood pressure, emotional comfort). The nutritional value of breast milk (and thus the nutritional function of breastfeeding) developed after the other functions in the evolution of lactation. The nutritional value of all mammalian milks have been shaped by the specific needs of each species. Human milk meets the specific needs of humans as large-bodied, large-brained, slow-growing primates

Whenever we design cultural systems of beliefs and behaviors that contradict our evolved capacities and needs, there will be a price to pay.

Formula fed babies (*more commonly seen in areas of the world where potable water and nutrient-dense foods are lacking*) are at higher risk of:

  •  Candidiasis
  •  Diarrhea
  •  Enteroviruses
  • Giardia
  • Haemophilus Influenza
  • Meningitis in Preterm Infants
  •  Necrotizing Enterocolitis
  •  Otitis Media (ear infection)
  •  Pneumococcal Disease
  • Respiratory Infections (general)
  •  Respiratory Infections (from exposure to tobacco smoke)
  •  Respiratory Syncytial Virus
  • Salmonellosis
  • Sepsis in Preterm Infants
  •  Anemia and Iron Deficiency
  •  Autoimmune Thyroid Disease
  •  Constipation and Anal Fissures
  •  Cryptorchidism (undescended testicle)
  •  Esophageal and Gastric Lesions
  • Gastroesophageal Reflex
  •  Inguinal Hernia
  •  Lactose Malabsorption
  • Morbidity and Mortality
  •  Plagiocephaly
  •  Pyloric Stenosis
  •  Sudden Infant Death Syndrome
  •  Toddler Illnesses

My mom (right) breastfeeding me. 1986

Maternal Health- Research also suggests women who do not breastfeed have statistically higher rates of*:

  • Breast Cancer
  •  Endometrial Cancer
  •  Esophageal Cancer
  • Hodgkin’s Disease
  •  Ovarian Cancer
  •  Thyroid Cancer
  • Uterine Cancer


  • Poorer Cardiovascular Heath
  •  Higher rates of Diabetes
  •  Poorer Emotional Health
  •  Higher Fecundity/Fertility
  •  More hot flashes during menopause
  •  More Osteoarthritis
  •  More Osteoporosis
  • Slower Postpartum Weight Loss
  •  More Rheumatoid Arthritis
  •  Less Sleep: 40-45 minutes less per night
  • More Systemic Lupus Erythematosus

*It is important to note that breastfeeding does not reduce your chance of getting any of the above conditions. Many women who never have children or breastfeed will go on to live healthy disease-free lives, while many women who have breastfed will still go on to develop the conditions listed. One must take into account genetic risk factors, as well as other environmental risk factors that come into play. *


More importantly:

Culture can change rapidly.  Our genetic legacy – our anatomy, physiology, and behavior – as animals, mammals, primates, Great Apes, and humans – changes much more slowly.


The Milk Line:

Along which the mammary glands develop in pairs; it extends from the armpit to the groin. Some animals have many, some have two, some have some; some, such as the elephant have only the first pair (in armpits); humans have only the second pair, on our chests; some animals have only the last pair (or last two pairs) coalesced into an udder near their groin.

Human Milk: Humans have low levels of protein & fat in mother’s milk.
Infants are Fairly continuous feeders: Multiple times per hour, around the clock, until longer sleep cycles and quiet alert times gradually develop, and baby adapts or accommodates to mother’s preferences and schedule
Where allowed unrestricted access, will continue to nurse several times an hour for a few minutes each time through toddlerhood and beyond (sleep more at night, but nursing several times a night is typical/normal until weaning)

About Weaning:

  • During the first few months, the more often the baby nurses, the more milk the mother produces
  • After about 4 months, demand drives supply – the more milk the baby removes, the more milk the mother makes
  • More frequent nursing leads to more milk, with higher fat concentrations
  • Our late age at reproductive maturity predicts 3-6 years of breastfeeding (based on 12 to 20 years for reproductive maturity)
  • Primates that nurse for one year have their own offspring at the age of 4 years
  • Most mammals, including primates, nurse from birth until the end of infancy, where infancy is defined as “birth to the eruption of the first permanent molars”
  • In humans, these are the teeth known as the 6-year molars; they erupt in the back of the mouth behind the deciduous (baby) teeth about the same time the first baby teeth (the ones in front) are falling out.


Facts About Human Weaning:

  • The instinct to suck/suckle persists until about the age of 6-7 years
  • The immune system reaches maturity around 6-7 years
  • The brain has completed most of its growth by 6-7 years
  • Children are much more independent by this age than they are at 1-2-3 years of age
  • Range of 2.5 years to 7.0 years as natural age of weaning in modern humans
  • Many cultures around the world where all children nurse 2-4 years or longer
  • Many children around the world, including the United States and Australia, who nurse 2-4 years or longer, including up to and beyond the predicted upper limit of around 7 years

Human children expect to be the primary parenting focus of their mother’s attention for many years before a younger sibling is born.

Average human birth spacing (without intervention) would be at least 4 years between births, with 6-7+ years being even more optimal.

It is normal and healthy for children to breastfeed for many years

Tags assigned to this article:
anthropologybreastfeedingKathy Dettwyler

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  1. Christine Ferguson 14 June, 2012, 06:40

    Thank you for posting this series. It’s been very interesting and informative!

    Reply this comment
  2. Carol 14 June, 2012, 07:44

    I love learning new things! Thanks for posting this – I’ll be sharing this with friends and also my homeschooled kids (so they can get a better idea of how to take notes!)

    Reply this comment
    • Jamie Lynne Author 16 June, 2012, 09:56

      Oh Carol! That made my day. So happy Kathy’s work will be shared with homeschoolers! She is an amazing lady.

      Reply this comment
  3. Elizabeth 15 June, 2012, 12:51

    Not all of the information you provided is entirely accurate. Have you researched the cons to prolonged breast feeding at all?

    Reply this comment
    • Jamie Lynne Author 16 June, 2012, 09:23

      This information was provided by Dr. Katherine Dettwlyer. She is the leading anthropologist in regards to breastfeeding research. Her field research was groundbreaking. I suggest you pick up Breastfeeding: Biocultural Perspectives… A great place to start. As long as child and mother are happy with breastfeeding, it is not detrimental to breastfeed for a biologically normal length of time. Using the term “prolonged” leads me to believe you are not aware breastfeeding between the ages of 2.5- 7 is biologically normal for our species. Also, coming from a family of multiple generation attachment parents (which includes breastfeeding well past infancy) I find the thought of “cons” to breastfeeding quite humorous. I am raising my children this way because of my positive childhood, specifically my memories of breastfeeding.

      If you have the sources of these “cons” I would be very interested in reviewing the research. Unfortunately, I cannot find any legitimate scholarly articles/ research done that claims there are any issues with breastfeeding any length of time.

      Reply this comment
      • Jamie Lynne Author 22 October, 2012, 16:18

        Also, I’ve recently become aware of paid trolls by formula companies to come on and plant the seed of doubt about breastfeeding in posts like this. Considering “Elizabeth” never came back on to try to debate her point, it is safe to assume he/she/it may very well be a paid troll.

        Definitely something to be aware of.

        Reply this comment
        • Sian Williams 22 June, 2013, 07:00

          That’s absolutely horrendous. But then, not much worse than other pervasive methods used to promote their products I suppose – really hits that home for me actually…it’s a travesty. I say this from a POV that’s deeply sympathetic to women who end up needing to use formula btw (a POV shared by all of us here I’ve no doubt at all) – it’s the corporate vampirism that’s deplorable.

          Reply this comment
    • Charlene Connell 12 July, 2012, 15:33

      Would have loved to have you actually tell us:

      *What information is inaccurate
      *What the cons are to extended nursing
      *Define your term “extended nursing”
      *List sources to prove your points

      Otherwise, you just seem to not like what is being said.

      Reply this comment
    • Sian Williams 22 June, 2013, 06:45

      The only possible ”con” I can think of is having to deal with well meaning advice or criticism from time to time…..and that’s perfectly cope-able. As parents we have to get used to that over the years anyway, right? Likewise disagreements with your partner over parenting – they inevitably happen over all manner of things – it’s really not the problem it’s made out to be.

      Reply this comment
      • Erynn 22 June, 2013, 08:49

        Oh I completely agree. That is the ONE and only con. Well-intentioned busy bodies :) For instance lately my 3 year old son has been on a “food” strike and demanding things I find less than satisfactory at every meal rather than what is offered. SO he skips meals sometimes but still gets his milk and fruit and veggies. Which is fine!~ He’s basically a self made vegetarian anyway :) And my own sister who you would think would be supportive and her own daughter does the same but doesn’t bf and has glasses of cow’s milk (yuck) says to me I should cut him off the breast then so he will eat….. UHM OK. Thanks for listening, thanks for the support. Nice to know another one I thought was cool with it isn’t. That is the hard part, having no one say good for you for doing such a great thing for your son! Which I know I am! BUT every time I talk about bf they say they are not interested, meanwhile I listen to all their stuff you know? ONLY con. At least WE know <3

        Reply this comment
        • sian williams 23 June, 2013, 01:17

          oh erynn <3 I could have writen that myself! Totally feel for you – and it's worse when the 'I'll tell you what I think you should be doing but not really listen to your reasons for doing things differently' comes from someone who's close to you isn't it? I've been pretty lucky overall, but definately come up against the implication that my three year old's filling up too much on breast milk and even that he's been spoiled somehow because of (ouch!)….where as I'm greatful of the knowledge he's toping up on his nutrients that way, so I can worry just a little less about this generic picky eating issue that most if not parents go through at some point with their kids!
          The not wanting to read up on the benefits of Bfeeding bothers me too – mostly in my partner I think – he's not actively discouraging, or unsupportive, and it's not causing any serious rifts- but you want those closest to you to really understand right? Ah well, as you say WE know – and knowing that helps a lot! Lots of love :)

          Reply this comment
  4. Kate 21 June, 2012, 21:13

    Jamie–Thanks so much for putting yourself out there in the world as an educator on this subject! I’m a nursing AP mom of an 8 month old, and even though I felt like I had read everything on earth about parenting babies and breastfeeding, I have learned SO much from your posts on this topic since the whole TIME hullabaloo. :-) I know the things you’ve shared from the anthropological research will help me resist pressure to wean my son before he’s ready. You’ve helped our family, and lots of others as well I am sure.

    Reply this comment
    • Jamie Lynne Author 22 June, 2012, 23:32

      Wow, thanks Kate! I am so glad you’ve enjoyed some of the information that I’ve been lucky to obtain permission to share! It is so great to see the community come closer together to help educate people on something so natural.

      Reply this comment
    • Sian Williams 22 June, 2013, 06:43

      Same here – gratutude as always Jaimie. Great read!

      Reply this comment
  5. Lauren 22 October, 2012, 17:36

    Jamie, your cover, posts, and articles have been so helpful. I’m still nursing my 20 month old and don’t have any mind to quit anytime soon. There have been days where you have given me more backbone to stand up to people that think I’m nuts. Also you’ve helped me dismiss their criticism. Thank you, and keep it up.

    Reply this comment
  6. Wendy 17 January, 2013, 21:18

    I nurses my son until his fifth birthday. He’s a wonderful, confident 13 year old now.

    Reply this comment
  7. enza 19 January, 2013, 06:46

    hello, just this morning i posted on facebook that i was nursing my four year old son, and that i superficially felt ashamed, but that the shame was not really mine…thus the declaration and shift in focus to my commitment and courage. ha! my friend, sara dunbar, who i was in a birth circle with (is she your sister jamie? i think so.) linked this article. i have been doing my research for years and so i know most of what dr. dettwlyer includes here, but never the less it lifts me to see this post, your blog and family. thank you, jamie

    Reply this comment
  8. Darillyn Lamb Starr 22 June, 2013, 14:52

    Another great article! I had the opportunity of hearing Kathy Dettwyler speak, while I was nursing my fifth baby, Joseph, who is now 19. As a white mom nursing a very black baby, I stood out from the crowd, which interested her, so I got to talk to her for a while afterward. I nursed my six adopted babies, back in the 80s and 90s. I produced a significant amount of milk, just by nursing on demand with the Lact-Aid, but I also had to provide a significant amount of supplement. The AIDS scare back then made finding donated breast milk very difficult, so I had to use mostly formula of some kind.

    There is one issue brought up in this article that I wanted to say something about, that may benefit someone else who needs to give her baby some amount of formula. As listed, candidiasis is a HUGE problem for formula fed or partially formula fed babies. For the latter, it often results in nipple thrush in their nursing mothers. There are ways to avoid it, though. Choice of formula is a very important factor.

    One of the reasons that candidiasis (AKA yeast, thrush) isn’t as much of a problem for breastfed babies is that lactose breaks down into both glucose AND galactose, the sugar that feeds the beneficial bacteria in the gut. For that reason, formulas that contain lactose are less likely to cause candidiasis. However, many formulas do not contain lactose. Only the milk -based formulas that are not lactose-free contain lactose. All the rest, soy, the various specialty formulas, and the lactose-free milk based formulas, contain corn syrup and/or table sugar, which breaks down into glucose only.

    The reason most formulas contain refined sugar is NOT because there are many babies who are lactose intolerant. It is because of the PUBLIC MISCONCEPTION that many babies are lactose intolerant. The truth is that, even in countries that do not use dairy products, where most adults, and children over about five, are lactose intolerant, the vast majority of infants digest lactose just fine! True lactose intolerance in infancy is caused by a rare genetic defect called Primary Lactase Deficiency. Aside from that, babies can have a TEMPORARY lactose intolerance, from intestinal inflammation or extreme overfeeding. A temporary switch to a lactose free formula may help, or a lactase supplement like Lactaid. There are a few pediatricians who advocate giving babies lactase, rather than formulas with refined sugars, but most will just hand the mother a sample of the lactose-free formula from whichever formula rep came by most recently.

    The likelihood of candidiasis can be largely overcome. or the severity decreased, by giving the baby a probiotics supplement, preferably one that is formulated primarily for babies and children. I’ve given it to my kids and grandkids, with great results! If baby’s mouth or mom’s nipples show signs of thrush, some of the powder can be rubbed inside baby’s mouth or diluted with a tiny bit of water to coat mom’s nipples and air dry on. If only one has symptoms, both should be treated.

    Some formulas now contain probiotics, which I think is great. However, since probiotics are living organisms which can die at fairly low temperatures (yogurt culture, for example can’t be heated much above 110 degrees Fahrenheit without killing it), it is best to buy a separate supplement that has been kept refrigerated. Here is a link to my favorite. You can buy from any GNC store, or many other health food stores, which keep it cold. Unless you can’t get it anywhere else, I wouldn’t order it online, especially if you live where it gets hot.

    One more thing. For those moms who are supplementing at the breast, with the Lact-Aid or SNS, the product I’m recommending dissolves completely and won’t clog the tiny tubes.

    Reply this comment
  9. Hollie 30 June, 2013, 14:16

    Bravo to this article! I’ve been breastfeeding for three years and feel very confident that it’s the natural and right thing to do. However, I feel very unsupported by others. My dentist said at ! year to stop breastfeeding or his teeth would rot from all of the sugar and something about his teeth forming in the gums wrong. Do you have any info about that? I switched dentists and the second one never asked if I was breastfeeding. Needless to say, my son had healthy teeth. Thank you for your research and support.

    Reply this comment
  10. andrea 1 July, 2013, 01:04

    i am breastfeeding my 5 1/2 year old and my 15 month old very happily, but would love to hear of others’ experiences. My ONLY concern is something awful happening to make my 5 year old feel ashamed or confused about it. We only feed at home now, so chances are very slim that anyone will even find out, but if they did I’d love tips on how to handle it and talk to her about it. Fantastic article, and lovely to see so many like minded people here =)

    Reply this comment
  11. Meghan 6 August, 2013, 13:32

    This is fantastic! Thanks for posting this. My friend just linked me to it today, and I love the info here. It is so fascinating. I also took a look at your photos and they are just SO beautiful. What a great website this is!! Just had to say that. :)

    Reply this comment
  12. katy 6 August, 2013, 14:37

    Our Babies, Ourselves: How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Parent
    by Meredith Small would be of great interest to those who enjoyed this article. She also makes the same discovery as she explores other cultures. Her book is informative to breastfeeding, co-sleeping, and other parenting subjects.
    In fact, Small sites Katherine Dettwyler in her book.

    Reply this comment
  13. Jessica Hughes 12 August, 2013, 19:45

    Eesh. Thank goodness my healthy, happy, wonderful son drinks his formula-filled bottles.I am a happy mama and he is a happy baby. My friend just quit breastfeeding and she showed me this site – she was in tears reading this and feeling awful for not continuing to breastfeed. All I could say was yowza. It’s ok to give a baby a bottle of formula!

    Reply this comment
    • Jamie Lynne Author 12 August, 2013, 19:56

      Please show me on this site where it says it isn’t okay to formula feed. I’d love to know…

      Also, I would suggest she checks out my friend Suzanne’s blog:

      Reply this comment
      • Jessica Hughes 12 August, 2013, 21:44

        Thanks for the link!

        I think my friend was reacting to the long list of problems that formula fed babies are at risk for, which does seem a little hyperbolic:

        Haemophilus Influenza
        Meningitis in Preterm Infants
        Necrotizing Enterocolitis
        Otitis Media (ear infection)
        Pneumococcal Disease
        Respiratory Infections (general)
        Respiratory Infections (from exposure to tobacco smoke)
        Respiratory Syncytial Virus
        Sepsis in Preterm Infants
        Anemia and Iron Deficiency
        Autoimmune Thyroid Disease
        Constipation and Anal Fissures
        Cryptorchidism (undescended testicle)
        Esophageal and Gastric Lesions
        Gastroesophageal Reflex
        Inguinal Hernia
        Lactose Malabsorption
        Morbidity and Mortality
        Pyloric Stenosis
        Sudden Infant Death Syndrome
        Toddler Illnesses

        Not to mention the list of all the different types of cancer women are more likely to get, according to this research, if they don’t breastfeed. To a woman dealing with not being able to continue breastfeeding, this entire article has a very harsh tone. So not the place to look for formula-feeding support, obviously, but I just wanted to say so.

        Reply this comment
        • Jamie Lynne Author 13 August, 2013, 01:09

          This was written by Dr. Katherine Dettwyler and the list is accurate, but these are worldwide statistics, so I think it is important to keep a global perspective. Most Western families have access to clean water. Many of those illnesses mentioned are contracted due to contaminated water (formula used in areas without potable water is extremely extremely dangerous)…

          However, higher risk can be minimal but always worth mentioning even in the West. There needs to be a risk benefit assessment done with every choice we make in life. If there is no choice, then the answer is obvious. I had to have a c-section, it saved my life and my child’s. I also understand the risks and future risks associated with c-sections. However, the benefit was so great, there is no doubt it was the right decision that protected my child (and me!)…. Also, understanding what we are at a greater risk for (even if is is only a slight increase in risk) allows us to address this in other ways.

          Women who don’t have children are at the highest risk for estrogen-related cancers. Breastfeeding suppresses ovulation and lowers estrogen and progesterone…. so, of course, this is also another way to lower risk. It doesn’t mean you are immune if you have children or breastfeed, and it doesn’t mean women who don’t breastfeed or don’t have children are going to get anything listed above. This is important information to know so you can screen and take other preventative measures if you know you are in a “higher risk” group.

          I hope this makes sense…it is very late here and my eyelids are drooping as I write this…

          Anyway, this is speaking more about the normalcy of breastfeeding in human and non-human primate species and the importance of keeping breastfeeding as the cultural norm, globally.

          Reply this comment
          • Jessica Hughes 13 August, 2013, 20:44

            I have read elsewhere on your site that you are participating in the “I support you” campaign to bring mothers together, whether breastfeeding, formula feeding, or both. While I realize this information may be presented here in an effort to describe the GLOBAL cultural norm, it doesn’t accurately reflect first world realities. As you said, most of the illnesses mentioned in this article – illnesses that formula fed babies are at risk of developing – are due to unsafe water. This is obviously not an issue in a first world country (luckily!!)
            So you say “higher risk can be minimal but always worth mentioning…”
            I think most women are probably very aware that ‘breast is best’ and know what the breast offers that formula does not. Emphasizing minimal risk is such an inflammatory way (the very long bulleted list of diseases posted, the long list of cancers and other problems that women who don’t breastfeed are “at higher risk” of)..well, that doesn’t seem at all in the spirit of bringing mothers together to support each woman’s choice. Instead, it seems designed to point out that breastfeeding is the one and only reasonable choice, and that if a woman doesn’t breastfeed, both she and her child will suffer, and shame on that woman.

          • Jamie Lynne Author 13 August, 2013, 21:32

            This blog focuses on global issues. My family spends a significant portion of the year in developing nations, this is kind of what this blog is about.

            Also, this was written by an anthropologist, not by me. There isn’t anything inflammatory about it, it was a power point presentation. It is just presented in an extremely sterile way because of the original source. I would assume most people who read the list understand “giardia” and other protozoan and bacterial infections listed would be coming from contaminated water source, not formula. I personally find the presentation useful and because I didn’t write it, I can’t edit things out of it because some people will take it the wrong way. The point is we do need to care about this topic as a global issue (much more so than a domestic argument), and unfortunately a lot of people do not realize what is happening outside of the bubble of their own society.

            I’m not sure why you are spending time picking apart this one guest post. I am pretty clear in other posts about how I feel about feeding choices in the West. To the point where people are accusing me of being affiliated with formula companies (like they are paying me off)… So I apologize if this hurt you, it was not meant to do so.

            This information is still accurate and needs to be addressed because clearly there are avoidable parasitic infections putting children’s lives at risk and no one seems to care.

  14. Jessica Hughes 14 August, 2013, 07:51

    I haven’t been further on your site other than this post and your “I Support You” campaign post. Perhaps you are correct to assume that most people who read the list of diseases/problems know that many of those are due to contaminated water and are problems for parents in third world countries. Then again, perhaps not. As I said before, my experience with your site was my friend showing me that list, in tears, because she thought her baby was going to be at risk of all of those things because she was using formula. So that is just one person’s experience. You chose to post this presentation, and while you can’t edit it (I understand that) you could, I’m assuming, write more of an introduction to give it some context.
    That said, I’m looking forward to looking further at your site, and I’m glad you say you support feeding choices beyond exclusive breastfeeding.
    I very much appreciate you taking the time to come back and comment.

    Reply this comment
    • Cara Howard 14 January, 2014, 20:00

      The thing is, whether you like it or not, whether your child is healthy on formula or not, whether it makes your friend cry or not, it’s TRUE that using formula increases your child’s risk for those diseases. It’s statistics – some children who are breastfed WILL get cancer. Some children who are formula fed will NOT get cancer. But *statistically*, more formula fed children will have those diseases than breastfed children. If a fact hurts your feelings, that’s not the author’s fault. Don’t shoot the messenger…

      Reply this comment
  15. Anna 17 July, 2014, 08:29

    Thank you I am breastfeeding and needed the anthropology of it to help me determine when to cease. Surprised longer than a year and helpful infor.

    Reply this comment

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