Sunday, October 18, 2009

Why do I...

...nurse my children past age 12 months? Or even past six months? Why do I let them wean themselves? Isn't it weird to breastfeed a one, two, three year old child?

The short answer: Because it is easier.

Mothers do talk about weaning at a specific age as being difficult - because it was cutting something off relatively quickly, and the child protested it. Child-led weaning happens gradually, so there is no deprival.

But starting at the beginning... why breastfeed at all? There are so many reasons, some of which I am sure most of you know. I bet each person reading this knows that breastmilk is healthier for the baby. It lowers the incidence of a number of childhood illnesses and ailments, and even is a factor in preventing diseases later in life. Some of you probably also know that a mother who breastfeeds reduces her risks of certain diseases as well. By doing what is biologically indicated, we achieve more normal health - that is, lower incidence of many cancers and other problems.

Then there are the benefits that are not so measurable... the parts that are not merely scientific, but become a way of life. The bonding, the closeness, the mother as the baby's natural habitat, the ability to provide comfort as well as nutrition at all times... the emotional aspects of it. Babies need frequent touching and holding, and they have a suck need that cannot always be fully met through a bottle (or they'd overeat! They can't control the flow with a bottle the way they do at the breast). Breastfeeding is the most natural way to meet these biological needs... it is the way our bodies were intended to function.

So, as for breastfeeding a toddler... Do toddlers still need nutrition? Of course. Comforting? Closeness? You bet!

Many people think that breastmilk loses its nutritional value or immunological benefits after a certain time - most commonly, people believe that there is "no value" in mother's milk past either age six months or age 12 months. In fact, breastmilk still is nature's perfect food for the older baby - it is intended to be the primary source of a baby's nutrition up to age 12 months. All solid foods up to that point should be for experimentation and learning about tastes and textures rather than actually trying to fill the baby up on the solids. He should have room for the most important food - breastmilk! At age 12 months, a baby can gradually shift toward more solid foods, although many babies still get most of their calories through breastmilk for many more months. Older babies/young toddlers are typically known for their decreased appetites, and breastmilk fills in any gaps in their nutrition when they go through phases of eating very little, or not eating certain nutrients in solid food form. Personally, my first child didn't eat hardly any solids until about 13 months old - she just wasn't ready. She grew and thrived on breastmilk alone, and once she began solids, she had a healthy appetite for them. It is a myth that breastfeeding a toddler instead of them eating lots of solids will make them picky - by 18 months, Caroline had eased into eating a variety of solids, and she remains a healthy eater today. When nursing a toddler, what a relief to have the assurance that your child is still getting B vitamins, healthy fats, vitamin A and C, etc! This is why the formula companies have been marketing "follow-up formulas" to parents in order to ensure that their toddler is getting essential nutrients. I would guess that for many weaned toddlers, as much as half - potentially more - of their daily calories come from either these follow-up formulas or from cow's milk. Something that God designed to be the perfect food for babies would surely provide more perfect nutrition than something that was designed to feed baby cows, right? Not that formulas and cow's milk don't contain nutrition... but they cannot replicate the nutrition in breastmilk.

Nor can they replicate the immunological benefits. Breastfed babies typically get sick less often and recover more easily from illnesses. This continues as long as the child is breastfed. When the mother is exposed to an illness, her body makes antibodies which the child then gets through the milk - regardless of his age. Caroline recovered from minor colds very quickly as a toddler, and she got through her first puking bug when she was a little over age 2 because she was breastfeeding, She couldn't even keep down water and saltines, but she kept down enough breastmilk that she wasn't dehydrated. Breastmilk is so rapidly digested... a lot gets absorbed before it even hits the stomach. So, the toddler gets immunities to his illness while also receiving nutrition. A sick toddler is also in much need of comfort, and nursing is a favorite comfort!

So, babies still get those well-known benefits of breastmilk into their toddler years. What about the bonding aspect?

A baby who has been mothered through breastfeeding and has been nursed on demand without being heavily persuaded to take a lot of solids (or bottles or sippy cups or pacis) will not just naturally want to wean at age 12 months. It is rare for a baby to self-wean before age 18-24 months. Did you know the worldwide age of weaning is somewhere between two and four years old? And that is with the US's very low rates averaged in there as well! The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that babies be breastfed "for the first 12 months and as long after that as is mutually desired." Many people seem to look at this as meaning that it is time to wean after 12 months. The World Health Organization recommends breastfeeding at least two years and then as long beyond that as is desired.

Many people may say that a toddler who nurses is just doing it for comfort, just "using the mother as a pacifier,"etc. To an extent, that may be true. The milk, while still providing benefits, is probably not the main reason for many toddlers' continuation of nursing. they like the closeness. It is a time of quiet and peace in their otherwise busy days. It is a chance to reconnect with mom here and there throughout the day. It can be quite comforting while teething (my oldest got all 20 of her teeth as a toddler and none as an infant!). It can get a busy little body settled down enough to fall asleep for a much-needed nap. It can soothe tantrums and other frustrations that happen to little people as they learn how to navigate a big world. It can distract a child from something as well... I know that the reason I can make it through part of Mass each week before going out into the vestibule is because Cecilia can be occupied with nursing while I listen to the readings and homily! Breastfeeding makes travel easier, because the child's favorite comfort and food are right there with you - nothing extra to pack or bring along with you if visiting a bunch of different places with a toddler who may be shy about new environments.

But won't they never wean unless you make them wean? Well, there are no reports of adults who still nurse, so it would seem that every child will wean eventually. Some may self-wean at 2, others may nurse until age 7. In our culture, seven seems so, so old... but there are cultures where this is extremely beneficial, such as very cold arctic areas where there is not much of a food supply. I bet the bodily warmth helps out in those areas as well! ;) Children get more teeth at age six. Other mammals typically won't wean until they have all their teeth in. So, biologically, it is not so weird for a child to nurse to age seven.

For those who have not been around older babies and children who still nurse, be aware that it is different from nursing a little baby. An older child can often go much longer without nursing, or may only nurse when hurt or tired or cranky. Also, they nurse for shorter sessions. They may just nurse a couple minutes at a time as a three year old. Also, as they get older, children become more accepting of certain limits a mother may place on nursing. While it is easy to nurse a baby in a sling while grocery shopping, it is a bit more awkward and tedious to push a shopping cart while trying to nurse a two year old! Often toddlers can accept limits such as, "We'll nurse when we get to the car," or "We'll nurse at home." Cecilia is 20 months old, and she will typically be able to wait at least until I can find a place to sit down if we are out and about. She can also wait until we get to our destination if we are about to leave somewhere. She doesn't think she can wait yet during Mass! But that is okay - I am typically sitting half the time, so it works out still.

We have been taught - indirectly, usually - that nursing a child past 12 months is wrong, perverted, abusive, etc. It is not, of course, but it is easy to see why people can sometimes perceive this. We really don't see people breastfeeding very often around us - and especially not a toddler! I don't think i have ever seen anyone else nurse a toddler outside of La Leche League. And I have only seen two babies nursed in public in the town where I live - in a ten year period! Yet we see babies with bottles every time we go to Wal-Mart. So the cultural message, while unspoken, is clear: that babies drink from bottles and that breastfeeding should be hidden or not done at all. This causes lower breastfeeding rates overall - most people who feel like they cannot or should not nurse in public won't last long with breastfeeding. So they never even get to the toddler years... and then we see no toddlers nursing around us, either. While I make an effort to be discreet (meaning not "whipping it out," as many ignorant comments seem to suggest happens frequently when a woman nurses in public), I will not hide. I understand that some people feel uncomfortable nursing their babies in public and would rather find a secluded spot - and that is fine - whatever it takes for them to breastfeed successfully! But I really believe that to change the cultural perceptions about breastfeeding, it needs to be seen more often as a part of life, and as something that is normal! If anyone has questions on nursing in public, feel free to comment - I could probably do a whole "Why Do I Nurse in Public?" post - it seems to be a topic which is frequently met with objections, and each objection has a logical answer, often a biological one.

Children younger than school age are really still so little - just babies still! I still call children under age two "babies." They still wear diapers, cannot talk in complete sentences usually... they are babies. They will wean eventually if left completely alone, just like they will potty train eventually if left completely alone. And like they will sleep solid stretches if left completely alone... there's a trend to this attachment parenting stuff, huh? ;) Of course, they need to have guidance and examples. But not much has to be forced on a toddler - they bloom in their own time and outgrow "babyish" behavior as they grow into being children. We see toddlers as old as three and four with pacifiers all the time, and some who still use bottles - and usually we don't even think twice about the child with a pacifier, yet we think differently of the three year old who is nursing. The only difference is that the child is gradually outgrowing sucking needs in differnet ways. And with breastfeeding, he is still getting attachment needs met as well!

I feel like there is more to say on this topic... but it is 11:30 and I should go to bed! If there are any concerns or questions regarding extended breastfeeding that I didn't cover, ask away! Goodnight, all!


Mommy P said...

I've got 2 girls in my lap so this comment may be garbled.

My Sister In Law told me when G was 6 weeks old that there was no need to nurse her anymore, "she had gotten all of the benefits". Needless to say she thinks it is disgusting that I still nurse G.

I have no plans for weaning G anytime soon~I love nursing her and she still loves to nurse. It is so comforting to know other people who practice extending breastfeeding. She turns 19 months this week and is actually nursing more than she has in a while and turning back toward Mommy for everything. Daddy had been able to comfort her back to sleep (he goes in with her around 2 each night), but now she will scream and scream until she has a chance to nurse and then go back to sleep. Did either of your girls do this? I'm wondering if it's because of her little sister, or if it is just her telling me she needs more of me. In Adventures of Tandem Nursing, one Mom (whose children were 15 months apart) says that her older one followed the same nursing schedule as her newborn--so at 18 months the older child was nursing as much as the younger child and son on and so forth...I also think this may play into Gracie's nursing needs. Do you have any ideas?

I've always nursed G anywhere and everywhere. At one point I used a nursing cover, but it became more of a hassle and now I don't ever use it. Neither girl was used to being covered while nursing and the production of getting it on and keeping it on became way more of an attention getter than simply letting the girl latch on. For me it has now become more discreet to nurse without any cover at all.

Would love to post more, but the girls are restless...

Erin said...

Some children are still really "Mommy-needy" as toddlers, and having a baby sibling can definitely factor in there as well, if the toddler is needing Mommy more again after the baby is born. But it can be exhausting!! If Daddy keeps trying and is able to stay calm and collected through it, then she will learn to accept his comfort eventually... it varies from family to family in what they do, of course. Caroline accepted Daddy's comfort when she woke in the night earlier than Cecilia has, which is weird because she was more comfortable with him during the day before Caroline was. Cecilia is fine w/ daddy putting her to bed initially, but if she wakes any time after about midnight, she wants me. But if she won't go back to sleep nursing, sometimes she is fine with him putting her back to bed. Baby steps! Sometimes things happen much more gradually with one child than with another!

It is true that many moms discover that they can be more discreet without a cover - because the baby isn't trying to yank the cover off! ;) Some moms and babies do just fine with them and are more comfortable that way, but many are not - especially once they have latch-on down pat and the baby gets older and more active!