The term “Extended Breastfeeding” pisses me off. Before I get into why, let me start at the beginning. Sort of…
I am a HUGE Best For Babies fan and supporter. I think that their mission of encouraging ALL women to breastfeed in their own way, on their own terms, for as long as their circumstances permit – while making honest, scientific facts and information about breastfeeding available – AND providing young Mothers with famous “celebrity” role models to look up to – is EXACTLY what our culture needs. Their approach is VITAL if we are going to turn the tides of breastfeeding marginalization and prejudice in this culture. The other day, they outdid themselves (at least in my opinion) when they featured a story about Kelly Preston. It seems she is *still* breastfeeding her 16 month old son. And she’s talking about it with the mainstream media. The Best for Babies article lifted my spirits and soothed some of the frustration that I’ve been feeling – since I too am *STILL* nursing a baby. But wait you say – isn’t Leo almost 2? Yes. Yes he is. AND I AM STILL BREASTFEEDING HIM. There. I said it. Some of you may be scratching your heads, wondering why I’m acting like this is some kind of big deal. Some of you may understand. Let me clarify – I live in the Southern United States. Most new Mothers around here, IF they breastfed at all, switched to formula no later than 6 months. Many didn’t make it to 6 weeks – or out of the hospital. And that is much less of a reflection on THEM individually and more of a reflection on the societal pressure and culture here in my part of the world. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve been asked “When” I’M going to wean Leo (since it’s obviously a sign of a lack of parental discipline on my part to still have a nursing baby – and since I can obviously foretell the future) which started right around his third or fourth month – or felt twinges of embarrassment and even shame when he nursed in public or in front of others, or heard the words “He’s over *insert age here*, so he’s JUST nursing for comfort” – I’d be the world’s richest Mama. The polite and not so polite questions and social discomfort didn’t start at his first birthday either – oh no. They started much, much earlier. Before his birth even, on some fronts. Others were fine until he started experimenting with solids, still others began voicing opinions right around the time he hit the 9 month mark. It seemed everyone had/has an opinion on when and where I should nurse – or not nurse, and they all felt that since I was “doing it wrong” it was their place to correct me. And then there’s the biggest taboo of all – nursing in mixed company. This has been an ever-present bane to my existence. It seems that our culture has so inexorably intertwined breasts with sexuality that no man can look upon one – even one with a hungry baby attached – without feeling that he is being “flashed” or given a sexual “come on”. Now, this isn’t true for everywhere I’ve been, nor is it fair to all of the wonderful, supportive Dads out there – (FireDaddy being one of them) but still, because of these pervasive, ingrained messages and cultural awkwardness - nursing in public or around others, even family - has been a minefield for me from day 1. Please don’t get me wrong – I’ve loved breastfeeding my son. But now, at almost 2 years of breastfeeding, I’m a bit ready for him to wean. Really. Contrary to what some people have made abundantly clear that they think I’m doing – I AM feeding him “real food”. I am not continuing to breastfeed because I’m just “too lazy” to get up and fix food for him. (Yes, I really had that passive aggressively suggested as my reason for continuing past a year)… Leo is fed three balanced meals a day, plus as many snacks as he wants. Nor am I clinging to breastfeeding – or manipulating him into continuing – for some creepy emotional or physical reason of my own. (Another passive aggressive suggestion that, while not openly talked about, seems to be a fairly common belief - breastfeeding must be pleasurable for the Mother. As in, sexually. *gag*) News flash – breastfeeding, as wonderful and joyous as it is, isn’t always a cakewalk. Breastfeeding a toddler can be rough. Like – wrestling a python tough. Especially when the culture you live in looks at it as marginally abusive if not straight up inappropriate parenting. I’ve been asked, by people with horror in their eyes – “What if he REMEMBERS?!” As sad as it is, the pressure has gotten to me. I’m tired of being insulted, looked down on and treated like I’m doing something horribly shameful or “wrong”. I’m tired of feeling embarrassed and uncomfortable as I try valiantly to nurse him inconspicuously while around others or “out in town”. And frankly, I’m pretty much done anyways. But Leo’s not. And since there are two people in this relationship – we’re still breastfeeding. About a month ago, under duress from relatives who shall remain nameless, I attempted a mild “weaning”. I introduced several different “milks” (almond, soy and cow) to Leo, hoping he would take to one. I began spacing his nursing further apart, telling him to”wait” and offering him snacks and a sippy cup of milk instead. I cuddled him more, wore him in a wrap or his Ergo more, tried to do everything I could to let him know he was still connected, still loved, without nursing. I was encouraged and cheered on by relatives, friends, casual acquaintances. By the end of week one, I wasn’t getting much sleep, as Leo methodically replaced each and every missed daytime nurse with a night nurse. Which made me seriously start questioning the theory that all he’s getting from his nursing is comfort – why would he be replacing the feedings, calorie for calorie, IN HIS SLEEP, even as I increased his solids and other liquids? I don’t doubt that some of the nursing was worry, distress over the change, but I hesitated to attribute all of it to “comfort” nursing because of what happened next. He started LOOSING weight. Not drastically, but certain clothes fit looser, or not at all. His allergies spiked, even though he was still being given his allergy medication and even though FireDaddy’s seasonal allergies had eased. A massive double ear infection erupted (Leo had previously been infection free long enough that we were hoping he had finally hit the “growing out of it” stage) that further robbed both of us of what little sleep we were getting. During the day, his anxiety, whining and aggressive behaviors made me wonder if I’d accidentally taken the wrong child home from the playground. And he began refusing ALL sippy cups, whether they contained milk or not. A few were actually lobbed at my head. Now, some will argue that this was all just a “stage” or possibly a result of other things we had going on – my emotional tailspin perhaps, or simply just coincidence. I didn’t think so. And that’s when I scrolled through my Facebook feed to see Best For Babies’ Kelly Preston article. I read it, re-read it, and cried. And then promptly picked my son up and nursed him. NOT because some celebrity was doing it and had the guts to talk about it in front of the whole world – although that helped, a little. Nope. I did it because the article (written by a Certified Lactation Counselor) explained, in no uncertain terms, what I already suspected. Toddlers who nurse are NOT “just” getting comfort. Here’s an excerpt from the article, with no revisions or alterations from me. Please note the references to actual scientific studies in parentheses.
FACTS about breastfeeding after 1 year:
- After 1 year, human milk has significantly increased fat and energy contents, compared with human milk before 1 year. Babies’ brains are growing and NEED the extra fat & especially human cholesterol.
- In the second year (12-23 months), 448 mL of breastmilk provides (Dewey 2001): 29% of energy requirements, 43% of protein requirements,36% of calcium requirements,75% of vitamin A requirements,76% of folate requirements, 94% of vitamin B12 requirements, 60% of vitamin C requirements . Note that this is exactly what baby humans need; cow’s milk is designed to grow baby cows which have smaller brains per body mass.
- Nursing toddlers between the ages of 16 and 30 months have been found to have fewer illnesses and illnesses of shorter duration than their non-nursing peers (Gulick 1986). In other words, the longer that toddlers are allowed to nurse, the lower their risk of disease. There is also a proportionate increase in IQ for babies and toddlers who breastfeed longer, i.e. higher IQ for breastfeeding over 1 year vs. 6-12 months.
- Some of the immune factors in breastmilk increase in concentration during the second year and also during the weaning process. (Goldman 1983, Goldman & Goldblum 1983, Institute of Medicine 1991).
- In cultures where mothers and babies are not pressured to wean prematurely, babies self-wean naturally between 2.5 and 7 years of age, with most babies self-weaning around age 3 or 4. (Dettwyler)
- The longer babies are allowed to nurse the better socially adjusted they are. Per the researchers, ‘There are statistically significant tendencies for conduct disorder scores to decline with increasing duration of breastfeeding.’”
- Breastfeeding toddlers (babies > 1 year), helps them learn to self-soothe and self-regulate, manage frustrations (some parents report avoiding the “terrible twos” altogether) and lessens pain from bumps and bruises (breastmilk contains analgesics, i.e. natural pain-killers). Nursing toddlers are easier to handle in the doctor’s office, too!
- Breastfeeding toddlers (babies > 1 year) helps them make a gradual transition to childhood, “Meeting a child’s dependency needs is the key to helping that child achieve independence. And children outgrow these needs according to their own unique timetable.” Children who achieve independence at their own pace are more secure in that independence then children forced into independence prematurely.
- The longer mothers breastfeed, the lower their risk of breast cancer, ovarian cancer, uterine cancer, osteoporosis, rheumatoid arthritis, and heart disease.
- Older babies/toddlers nurse fewer times per day, most people are usually unaware they are nursing.
- Babies that are old enough to “ask” to nurse are also old enough to say “thank you”, one of the sweetest experiences any mother can experience!
So, truthfully, there is no such thing as “extended” breastfeeding or “still” breastfeeding much as there is no such thing as “extended” walking or “still” walking. Breastfeeding, like walking, is part of being human and begins and ends when it is evolutionary and developmentally advantageous. In the case of breastfeeding, that is birth to somewhere between 2.5 and 7, end of story. Anything other than that is premature weaning–and we all need to accept and acknowledge that.
And there you have my explanation for disliking the term “extended breastfeeding”. I am NOT extending the breastfeeding of Leo, I am simply breastfeeding. And one last thing – even IF a toddler were “just” nursing for comfort – why would we deny the child we love so dearly the comfort he so obviously needs? Being comforted is JUST as important a need as any other, isn’t it?