How Long Do Humans’ Close Relatives Breastfeed For?

How Long Do Humans’ Close Relatives Breastfeed For?

“When are you going to stop breastfeeding?”

“Are you still breastfeeding?”

Despite the vast amount of evidence demonstrating the many important reasons to breastfeed a child well into toddlerhood and beyond, it’s not uncommon for breastfeeding mothers to hear these questions from family, friends and strangers.

So many people seem to think there should be a certain age when breastfeeding ends (which differs for many reasons).

How Long Do Humans’ Close Relatives Breastfeed For?

So, biologically speaking, how long are children meant to breastfeed?

Katherine Dettwyler is a lecturer, author and breastfeeding advocate, who also has a PhD in anthropology. Her research into this area shows the minimum predicted age for a natural age of weaning in humans is between 2.5-7 years, based on developmental factors and comparisons with other mammals.

In line with this, how long do one of our closest mammal relatives, orangutans, breastfeed for?

Orangutan Mothers Breastfeed For The Longest

It has previously been believed baby orangutans exclusively breastfed for the first year of life, then slowly introduce other foods, such as fruit.

It is difficult for researchers to observe nursing behaviour in primates who live in trees. Observation alone however can make it difficult to accurately track how long animals breastfeed for.

Recent research has revealed orangutan mothers actually breastfeed their offspring far longer. This new research measured barium (an element which gets absorbed in teeth when breastfeeding) deposits on orangutans’ teeth to determine a history of their dietary habits. This revealed orangutans are breastfed until they are 8 or 9 years of age.

So, how long do other ape mothers breastfeed?

Chimpanzee mothers tend to breastfeed for about five years and gorilla mothers for around four years.

Meanwhile, humans breastfeed for one of the shortest durations compared to other primates. How long to continue breastfeeding is a personal choice for each family to make.

The World Health Organization recommends exclusive breastfeeding for six months and then breastfeeding combined with solid foods for 12-24 months, or as long as mother and baby desire. In cultures where there’s no pressure to wean, children will usually breastfeed until at least two years of age.

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Renee Kam is a mother of two daughters, an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC), a physiotherapist, author of 'The Newborn Baby Manual' and an Australian Breastfeeding Association Counsellor. In her spare time, Renee enjoys spending time with family and friends, horse riding, running and reading.

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