Child-Led Weaning Awareness Series Pt. 4: What People Say

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This is the fourth and final part of a short series about child-led weaning (click for part one, two, and three).

We know the process of weaning — whether led by the child, the mother, a doctor, or society’s expectations — is an emotional, personal, and rather fascinating one.

Let’s finish the discussion with what formula companies, world health authorities and respected figures, parents, researchers, authors, and children have to say about breastfeeding beyond infancy.

Before I gave birth, and especially before pregnancy, I truly never expected to breastfeed a toddler. I didn’t had a problem with it, I just hadn’t given full-term breastfeeding any thought because I’d never actually seen it. When I did see it (because I was actively looking for it), I couldn’t truly understand it because I hadn’t yet done it myself. I wondered, How does that even work? Why would someone want to do that? What’s the point?

If you dare ask these questions aloud, you’ll quickly learn that everyone has an opinion. And you know what I say about opinions–they’re like nipples, everyone has them! So as I began my breastfeeding journey, I started to get the impression that this was kind of a big deal. And I kept my ears perked for the answers.

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What I Found Out About Breastfeeding Beyond Babyhood

I found that formula companies say “Breast is Best”… for precisely six months. They tend to use this as leverage for their own product by reminding that formula is great to use for a full year, and then of course you can switch to an older infant formula. They really focus on health authorities’ recommendation of exclusive breastfeeding “for six months” so they can agree that breast milk is great, but are also able to insinuate that it has an expiration date by ignoring the rest of the recommendation.

I learned that all of the major world health organizations recommend and encourage breastfeeding past infancy. No health organization believes that breastfeeding past infancy is harmful. But I also found that, ironically, many health professionals (general practitioners, pediatricians, etc) are still not fully aware of the benefits, and some even discourage extended breastfeeding (past one year) or at least minimize its importance not only to the children, but to mothers and families as well. The most current research confirms that exclusivity, intensity, and duration of breastfeeding are crucial factors in receiving the maximum benefits from breastfeeding that we always hear about.

Here are the statements from organizations and persons of authority of which/whom you might recognize and refer to regularly:

  • American Academy of Family Physicians – “[B]reastfeeding should ideally continue beyond infancy, but this is not the cultural norm in the United States and requires ongoing support and encouragement. It has been estimated that a natural weaning age for humans is between two and seven years. Family physicians should be knowledgeable regarding the ongoing benefits to the child of extended breastfeeding, including continued immune protection, better social adjustment, and having a sustainable food source in times of emergency… Breastfeeding the nursing child after delivery of the next child (tandem nursing) may help to provide a smooth transition psychologically for the older child.”

  • American Academy of Pediatrics – “Breastfeeding should be continued for at least the first year of life and beyond for as long as mutually desired by mother and child…There is no upper limit to the duration of breastfeeding and no evidence of psychologic or developmental harm from breastfeeding into the third year of life or longer.”
  • Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine (words of ABM president Arthur Eidelman, MD)- “Claims that breastfeeding beyond infancy is harmful to mother or infant have absolutely no medical or scientific basis… Indeed, the more salient issue is the damage caused by modern practices of premature weaning.”
  • American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists – Recommends that “exclusive breastfeeding be continued until the infant is approximately 6 months old. A longer breastfeeding experience is, of course, beneficial. The professional objectives are to encourage and enable as many women as possible to breastfeed and to help them continue as long as possible.”
  • Australian National Health and Medical Research Council – Recommends that “mothers continue breastfeeding until 12 months of age—and beyond if both mother and infant wish…In many societies breastfeeding continues well beyond the age of 12 months, with benefit to both infant and mother.”
  • Former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Antonia Novello – “It’s the lucky baby, I feel, who continues to nurse until he’s two.”
  • Pope John Paul II – “So much is expected of women in many societies that time to devote to breast-feeding and early care is not always available. Unlike other modes of feeding, no one can substitute for the mother in this natural activity…Responsible international agencies are calling on governments to ensure that women are enabled to breast-feed their children for four to six months from birth and to continue this practice, supplemented by other appropriate foods, up to the second year of life or beyond.”
  • UNICEF – “The aim is to create an environment globally that empowers women to begin skin-to-skin with her baby and breastfeed after birth, to breastfeed exclusively for the first six months and to continue to breastfeed for two years or more with age appropriate, responsive complementary feeding.”
  • World Health Organization – Recommends “continued breastfeeding along with appropriate complementary foods up to two years of age or beyond… Breastfeeding is an unequalled way of providing ideal food for the healthy growth and development of infants; it is also an integral part of the reproductive process with important implications for the health of mothers.”

I learned that many more mothers nurse their toddlers (and, gasp, kindergartners!) than you probably think. Many breastfeed secretly. Others just don’t allow it in public anymore, whether due to fear of humiliation or harassment, practicality reasons, or simply because the child no longer has the need outside the home other than for certain circumstances, such as making a boo-boo feel better or helping him ease into nap time.

I discovered that there’s surprisingly little research on children who have breastfed past the age of one, and even less on those who continue past the age of two. It helps that children at this age can use their words to tell us (because they’re “old enough to ask for it”) why it’s something they still need, love, and depend upon.

I found that breastfeeding a toddler can be so awesome! Seriously! And funny, convenient, and reassuring. Six ways I can prove it:

  1. It certainly provides some comic relief to lighten the mood if I’ve had a particularly rough, emotional day. It can be kinda hilarious to watch MaiTai attempt headstands or balance both feet on my knee cap while nursing.
  2. It’s incredibly cute when he stops to hold a conversation with me, nipple still perched in his babbling mouth, like we’re sitting down to gossip over coffee. Or when we play Peek-a-Boo/Three Little Piggies/try-to-pick-mama’s-nose-with-baby’s-foot games while milkin’ it.
  3. It’s also super convenient. I don’t have to guess when he wants to nurse–he is capable of telling me in a variety of ways other than the perma-crying of newborn yesteryear. Now he tells me “All done” or “Other side, mama!” No need to break out the parenting books to decode that.
  4. Toddlers can negotiate with you about when you’ll be breastfeeding. Maybe you work from home so you’re only open for booby business at lunch hour, or maybe you just want to spend extra time in the bathroom getting ready and prefer to delay nursing for a bit. You can explain this to a toddler and s/he is capable of accepting the company of others or the distraction of a different activity until you’re ready to open up shop (s/he’s old enough now that your breast milk is not the sole source of immediate nutritive gratification).
  5. Oh, and what an excellent parenting tool especially as you struggle to navigate your way through the Terrible Twos! Falling down, getting overtired, handling stranger anxiety, and catching colds are a cinch to “make it all better” with the natural connection to mama that has persisted since day one.
  6. Breast milk helps fill in the nutritional gaps for stubbornly inconsistent eaters. Everyone knows toddlers can be frustratingly picky eaters, which is especially not good for a newbie mom who’s worried that her kid’s going to starve on his sudden new favorite diet of “only things that are red” or “only a bite-and-a-half per meal, the rest shoved down my overalls.” Ah, peace of mind is underrated when you’re a parent!

I found that many mothers who breastfeed past one year will meet someone who has a certain opinion about it, perhaps one like this: “Doing that is really just for the mother” or “I’m all for breastfeeding, but it’s too uncomfortable to watch an older child still nursing” (then don’t watch?). It also seems that whether or not a mother nurses her older child in public, some people believe it’s a matter of their comfort with it, and fail to understand that how a mother comforts her child is not a public concern even if it is in public!

Try these approaches to handle the criticism and commentary, whether from complete strangers or someone in your close family circle. Remember, not everyone is going to understand and that’s okay, because no one’s opinion about breastfeeding is more important than your child’s. Go ahead -– look your child in the eye while nursing and ask how s/he feels about it. Even if your child doesn’t use words yet, you’ll see the answer written all over that happy milk-drunk face.

On that note, I also found that children who are breastfeeding after they’ve begun verbally communicating tend to have plenty of good things to say about it. It turns out that “being old enough to ask for it” is actually a good thing because it means they’re old enough to say please, thank you, and explain what they love so much about nursing.

Are your children finally old enough to ask for it?

Did you not notice…they’ve always been “asking” for it!

First, they squirmed for it in their newborn onesies, with rooting mouths and clenched fists. Then they wailed and even screamed for it when they learned that making lots of noise made people do stuff for them, like presenting a breast. When they got the hang of gesturing, they grabbed for and pointed directly at the source. Next, they responded with uncontrollable excitement to the word for it (in our house it’s “na-noo” or “nano”). Eventually, they started using the word themselves.

And finally, they incorporated the word in impressive interrogative phrasing: “Can I have na-noo (nursies/milkies/booby/breast milk/nur-nur/mama)?” -– in the same manner that they ask for a banana if they’re hungry, a Band-Aid if they’re hurt, or a hug if they need to be close. Think about this: why is it assumed in our culture that the answer to breastfeeding should be “No” by a certain age, but such an answer is inappropriate if the request is for a banana, a Band-Aid, or a hug?

From the chapter “Children Talking” in the book Fresh Milk: The Secret Life of Breasts, author Fiona Giles writes:

“With barely 3 percent of Western mothers breastfeeding their children beyond the age of two, most children have forgotten about breastfeeding before they can talk. Seeing a naked female breast becomes a rare event in most households; and many children are discouraged from taking a close interest in their mother’s breasts once they are weaned.”

She quotes children’s thoughts and past memories of breastfeeding:

“It was comforting and relaxing, and I looked forward to it. It was warm.” – Boy, age eight

“They’re like big balloons, and there’s a knot where the string gets tied on.” – Boy, age two

“They’re like googie eggs. They’re round and soft, and I can eat them for breakfast.” – Girl, age five

“The word addictive comes to mind.” – Girl, age twelve

Giles asked extended-nursing mothers how their toddlers and older children reacted to breastfeeding:

“When [my son] was four he started going to nursery school, and I asked him if he thought any of the other kids at his school were breastfeeding. He said, ‘Only the happy ones.’”

“While [my daughter] fed, her hand would snake up into my hair, running the strands through her fingers and twirling my curls. She still likes to twirl my hair when she is in need of comfort.”

“[My daughter] discusses my breastfeeding with me often…She caresses my breasts and tickles them. She will kiss them if they hurt and jokingly talk to them.”

“Lily, now twenty-two, says she remembers my breasts being like ‘soft pillows’ and that she loved the taste of milk. Jonathan, now sixteen, says he remembers how much he loved breastfeeding, and that he would sometimes ‘trick me’ by continuing to suckle even though there wasn’t anymore milk coming. He found that very funny at the time, he said.”

Jamie Lynne Grumet of I Am Not the Babysitter transcribed in a cute and wise post on her six-year-old son’s thoughts on breastfeeding. Fiona Giles also quotes one adult mother who seemed to represent a general attitude among those adults interviewed (does it sound uncomfortably familiar to any of you?):

“It’s very taboo and embarrassing to think of [my mother’s breasts]. I remember touching them by accident and being grossed out… I don’t remember being held.”

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“Given the opportunity, our little ones will let us know when the time is right to move forward. Our job is to make sure we don’t complicate things with our big adult ideas.” – Summer Troutdale, “Nursing Haircut

Click here for more weaning resources on my page, including myths, tips, stories, and books.

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