My Personal View on Extended Breastfeeding

Welcome to Part 4, the last segment of my Time Magazine blog series. Thanks for following along! If you’ve missed any posts, you can go back to read my response to Time’s cover, article, and to attachment parenting. Today I’ll be talking about my view on extended breastfeeding.

For sake of definition, “extended breastfeeding” generally refers to nursing a baby past 12 months, though some may reserve the term for those who nurse well into toddler-hood and beyond.

Why this post? First, Time Magazine’s cover of a mom breastfeeding her 3-year old son roused a lot of attention nation-wide, and I want to contribute to the discussion. Second, I’ve found myself defending extended breastfeeding among friends who thought it was gross or weird, when I never thought I’d be one of “those moms!” This post is helpful for my own sake in clarifying how I got to this point- because I never used to think extended breastfeeding was cool. My mind was changed little by little, over time and exposure to research.

Growing up, I always thought it was bizarre to hear about a woman nursing her toddler (and particularly boorish if the child was school-aged!). I guess this view grew from assumptions of those around me, because I never heard it from my parents. Regardless, when I was pregnant, I planned to breastfeed- I myself was breastfed (though I self-weaned before a year), and it only seemed natural to me. My initial goal was to make it at least 6 months, but I knew I’d be happier if I could make it to a year.

When I had my son, our breastfeeding relationship got off to a great start, not by any merit of my own. Any struggles I had with nursing were minimal. I loved nursing him, but I still thought extended breastfeeding was a little weird, though less so than before-mostly due to my care providers’ influence.

Months went by. I was reading several books for my doula certification (such as The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding, The Baby Book, The Complete Book of Breastfeeding) and they discussed weaning in terms such as “normal,” “timely,” and “child-led.” Then they proceeded to talk about nursing babies not just in terms of weeks or months… but in years! Either all of these books were written by quacks, or there was something to this long-term nursing thing.

Since then, I’ve looked into “extended” breastfeeding more. And here’s just a taste of the supporting information I’ve found for it:

  • The World Health Organization recommends exclusive breastfeeding for at least 6 months, and then continued breastfeeding along with “nutritionally adequate and safe complementary foods”  for up to two years or beyond.
  • The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends “exclusive breastfeeding for about the first six months of a baby’s life, followed by breastfeeding in combination with the introduction of complementary foods until at least 12 months of age, and continuation of breastfeeding  for as long as mutually desired by mother and baby.” (Check out the whole article entitled Breastfeeding and the Use of Human Milk in the publication Pediatrics. This is a superb read if you are looking for more evidence-based information about breastfeeding as the “normative standard” for infant feeding and nutrition.)
  • UNICEF states that, “It is well recognized that the period from birth to two years of age is the “critical window” for the promotion of good growth, health, and behavioral and cognitive development. Therefore, optimal infant and young child feeding is crucial during this period.” What do they define as optimal feeding? You guessed it- “Optimal infant and young child feeding means that mothers are empowered to initiate breastfeeding within one hour of birth, breastfeed exclusively for the first six months and continue to breastfeed for two years or more, together with nutritionally adequate, safe, age appropriate, responsive complementary feeding starting at six months.”
  • The American Academy of Family Physicians states that it is estimated that a normal weaning age for humans is between two and seven years, despite the fact that this is not the cultural norm in the US. The academy also states that, “The longer women breastfeed, the greater the decrease in their risk of breast cancer.” What a bonus!
  • One informative post by Stephanie Hanes quoted these amazing breastfeeding statistics: “In the southern African country of Malawi – one of Save The Children’s top ranked developing countries for moms – 77 percent of children are still breastfed at age two. That number is even higher in Bangladesh, where 90 percent of children still nurse, and in Nepal, where the number is 93 percent. Moms in India nurse 77 percent of their two-year-olds, and mothers in Rwanda are still breastfeeding 84 percent of theirs.” Wow!
  • Save The Children states that “Optimal feeding from birth to age two [which includes breastfeeding] can prevent an estimated 19 percent of all under-five deaths, more than any other intervention.” The Center for Sustainable Development echoes similar statistics.
  • Did you know that the US currently ranks last among 36 industrialized nations for breastfeeding support?  Perhaps this is part of why we have such a hard time wrapping our minds around nursing a baby for a year, much less beyond that.
  • Breast milk is not just about food. It’s true that toddlers may not need it to survive in our developed nation, but its immunity properties continue for as long as it is consumed. Contrary to popular misconception, it does not lose its value at any point. In fact, the immune protection in the milk actually increases as suckling frequency decreases.
  • Many point out that breastfeeding’s comfort qualities are also not to be brushed off easily. Jaime Lynne Grumet, herself nursed until she was six, remembered breastfeeding this way: “It’s really warm. It’s like embracing your mother, like a hug. You feel comforted, nurtured and really, really loved.” La Leche League often stresses that breastfeeding is one of our simplest, most accessible, and most effective parenting tools. Why be so swift to do away with it?

(All emphases mine.)

Wow. Suddenly all my sentiments of grossness are fading. It seems that major health organizations, as well as organizations promoting and providing for optimal well-being of children around the world are all in agreement: breastfeeding should continue for 12 months at the very least, and most recommend at least 2 years. The health benefits are absolutely phenomenal, not to mention various other benefits (just click on a few of the above links to find out more!).

This is not to guilt formula feeding mothers, or to pressure women who don’t feel that they can continue that long, or to scold mothers whose children weaned before a year. Rather, it is to inform those who find “extended” breastfeeding strange- or worse, “wrong” or “abusive.” Believe me, I used to be in the same boat as you! I’m not saying that you have to do it yourself. But please, consider international context and broader health recommendations when forming opinions about breastfeeding longer than our country’s average.

As for me personally? I weaned my son from daytime nursing when he was 13-15 months. He is currently 19.5 months and nursing once or twice in the early morning. This works well for our family, and I know he’s still getting the health benefits of my milk. Plus, it’s nice to still share that close snugly time with him once a day.

A bit of anecdotal evidence for the health benefits of extended nursing: whenever my son’s playmates are sick, he either never catches the bug, or if he does he has a very mild and short case of it compared to his non-nursing friends. My son has only been markedly sick a total of four times in his life, only one of which was anything to write home about. Obviously, I cannot guarantee that every nursing toddler would have the same results.

None of this is meant to boost myself as “more of a mom” than anyone who weaned earlier- remember, I employed “mommy lead” daytime weaning at 13 months because I was just feeling ready to be done with it at that point (though I felt comfortable continuing with one or two night/morning feedings). If that’s where you are- tired of handing your breasts over all day- there is no judgment here.

While I would not try to talk anyone into nursing longer than they were comfortable doing so, I do want to share my experience in hopes to encourage those who are considering nursing longer, despite cultural pressures to the contrary. I also hope that some of the links and information above will help you find what is best for your child and your family in your own nursing  journey.

How long will I continue nursing my son? I’ll be honest- I think I would be (mostly) okay with it if he weaned now. But, knowing what advantages breastfeeding has, I’m happy to continue nursing him til age two. I think at that point I’d probably work on actively (and lovingly) weaning him. But, then again, that’s what I said about the 18 month mark too. And here I am, still nursing. And, as my midwife’s assistant once said, motherhood is full of surprises and changed minds, and sometimes you find yourself doing something you originally never thought you’d do.

What do you think, ladies? How long did you nurse your kids, and why? Please share!

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2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by dac on May 28, 2012 at 10:36 am

    Great perspective. And, as always, i appreciate the information, as well as the balance that is offered.
    i have often thought that part of the cultural problem with extended breastfeeding in this country is that there has been a great sensual value and very little nourishing value put on that particular body part.
    We all have choices. Most of us would not prefer an image of ourselves breastfeeding on the cover of a national magazine. Yet, we have seen that our private family choices that have been made for very good reasons have fallen under scrutiny.
    Thank you again for a well thought out post.

    Reply

  2. […] has, I'm happy to continue nursing him til age two. I think at … … More: My Personal View on Extended Breastfeeding « the birth bug ← 15 Reasons to Breastfeed Your […]

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