Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Why "Extended" Breastfeeding?

Extended Breastfeeding: breastfeeding a child beyond 12 months after birth.

Recently a friend from college found out that I'm weaning Bear at 27 months, and she said "wow, you're more dedicated than I am. I'll go to 12 months but then I am DONE!" Now I don't think she's a bad parent, but her particular choice of words got me thinking. Dedicated? Um, if I wasn't willing to be dedicated to my children, then why would I have them? Seriously, if you want a pet, get a dog or a cat. If you want a child, you'd better plan on being dedicated. Is that such a strange notion?!

But that's not really the point of this post. The point of this post is that nursing beyond 12 months is not about dedication, it's about practicality, simplicity, and health for both me and the baby. Consider these facts:
  • Human milk is the perfect food for little humans--as much so on the day after their first birthday as it was on the day before it. (In regards to physical maturation, what is a birthday but an arbitrary date anyway?!)
  • For every year that a woman breastfeeds, she lowers her own risk of breast cancer.
  • For as long as a child breastfeeds, they get the benefits of mom's immune system. Considering that kids are at the peak of their exploratory phase (and still putting everything in their mouths) at age 1, it seems logical to continue giving them that extra protection through that stage.
  • Nursing provides a great way to re-connect with a toddler who is in that busybody exploratory stage...they may be walking and running, but they are still not very old, and every mother I have talked to agrees that their nursing toddlers benefit from continuing that special one-on-one mommy time.
  • Nothing calms a tantrum like nursing.
  • Many mothers find the nursing time a calming break in their daily routine.
  • Many 1 year olds do not have many teeth yet, or are not interested in many solid foods, but continued nursing ensures that their nutrition does not suffer. (Bear had only one molar at that age--so obviously he couldn't chew much, and could only eat limited foods--knowing that he could still get all the nutrients he needed from me was a great comfort.)
  • Nursing longer means that you can wait longer to introduce common allergins (like cow milk). The longer you wait, the less likely the child is to have a severe response to those foods.
  • Breastfeeding is really really convenient for traveling with a toddler (especially one who still has a limited diet). No matter where you are, you can bust out a breast--no need to pack snacks, worry about dehydration, or stress about whether appropriate foods will be available for your child.
  • When they do get sick, and won't eat anything, the average toddler will still nurse--so they can continue to get the nutrition (and immunilogical boost) that they need.
  • Primary brain myelination is not complete until age 2 (myelin is a sheath of fat that covers the neurons, allowing them to move faster--something like greasing them. The high fat content of mother's milk (which greatly exceeds even 'whole' cow's milk) contributes greatly to this process. Incomplete or improper myelination = slower brain function. In other words, nursing longer may make your kids smarter (actually, research suggests that it does).
  • Breastfeeding on demand (ie, when the child wants it, rather than on a schedule) usually causes lactational amenorrhea, or the lack of ovulation, for an average of 14 months. Depending on your child spacing plans, this can be a very convenient form of birth control. (Please note that 14 months is an average; I was infertile for 20 months, but I've had friends who were fertile again in under 6.)
  • The worldwide average age for weaning is around 4. I happen to feel comfortable with weaning anytime after 2, but I know many mothers (yes, in the USA) who are nursing their toddlers until 3 or 4. It may not be something that is seen very often in public, but that doesn't mean it's a bad idea.
  • (if you have others please comment and I'll add them, this is just what came to me off the top of my head!)
Obviously not every mother can nurse beyond a year. Some struggle with supply issues, some have health problems. And some mothers, for whatever reason, struggle emotionally with continuing to breastfeed. As I have said before (and will continue to say!) a healthy relationship means that it is working for both parties involved. If mom is resenting nursing, then it's not a healthy relationship...I would encourage her to consider why she is resenting it, as well as whether her child still seems to really need it, and whether there might be alternatives (ie, will it be detrimental to the child to wean? Is she just tired of nursing, or is it affecting her health or sleep patterns? Would cutting back/night weaning solve the issue?). Personally, I think mom should do her best to stick it out, no matter the challenges, until the child is 12 months. Ideally, I think children should be nursed until 24 months, and longer if mother and child desire it...but like I said, each mother needs to make her own decision. I just wanted to share my reasons for choosing extended breastfeeding...which, by the way, I don't think is very extended at all...I wish nursing till 2 were a whole lot more normal.

And because I know it's bound to come up, yes, there are potential cons to extended breastfeeding. Toddlers don't like to let mommy be discreet. Toddlers may prefer nursing over table food and refuse to eat many solids. Obviously things can become complicated if mother becomes pregnant and/or is tandem nursing a toddler and a newborn. I thought about a lot of these things when making my decision about how to proceed with Bear. The simple truth is that I feel that the pros far outweigh the cons, at least with nursing until 2. Now that he is past 2, I think the scales have shifted a bit, and given the other circumstances, weaning feels like the right choice. As I said before though, it would take some pretty extenuating circumstances to make me consider weaning before 18-24 months.


Mallory said...

I agree. I know a lot of kids that are the same age as my 12 month old have already been weaned. We are still going strong on nursing. It doesn't seem weird to me. It is completely natural. I don't plan on weaning him before he turns 2. In fact, I think I would almost be sad if he chooses to wean before then.

Christa said...

I agree 100%. I have friend who's mom breastfed her and her sister until they were 3 and half. They are the most well rounded adults now. They have a wonderful relationship with their mom too.
I wish everyday that my milk had lasted longer, I wish that my girls had gotten the opportunity to learn how to nurse instead of me having to pump all the time. With my new baby I will certainly be nursing for a very very long time.

Josie said...

I love nursing my 15 month old. She doesn't eat enough actual food to where I would be comfortable with her not nursing. It is so fun to watch them say milk please hehehe!

lynnette said...

hi im sure you didnt intend for it to be, but i thought the beginning of this post in particular came across as very arrogant and holier than thou sounding. i dont have kids so am not in a position to be offended, but i do think that it's important to consider people have a myriad of reasons for the decisions they make, and that doesnt make them less committed or dedicated than you are. (and no doubt you do seem like a great mom.)

Janeen said...

Yeah, I'm starting to wonder if we are reaching that point where we're going to have to start weaning. I didn't want to do it before we made our big move but now that we're here and things are still rocky, I don't know. I'm really starting to feel touched out and I think I am starting to resent her and I don't think I really realized that until I read your post. It's not that I don't enjoy nursing her but at almost three and a half, she has gotten VERY demanding about it. My husband wanted me to go until at LEAST two. He never said that he wanted me to go past that. And I expected that once we got here and we got settled, then we could look at weaning but in the last six months, we've moved four times and I think I'm getting beyond touched out and burned out now and it's getting to where I'm resenting her for it.

She's been night weaned for awhile and she was down to twice a day but went back up when we moved here. Now I'm beginning to think that I need to start working on that more, at least limit her nursing.

Mommy Bee said...

You're correct Lynnette, I wasn't trying to be pompous or holier-than-thou with my opening. I certainly understand that every person has to make their own choices...my primary goal is to share information in order to help them make educated choices. :) I certainly don't think that my friend is a bad parent, it was just the particular choice of words that got me to thinking... I figure that anyone who signs up for parenthood should realize that (at least) 18 years of dedication comes with the deal...call it 'commitment' or something else if you want, but the point is that if you have a kid you can't ignore the fact that you have a kid, and their needs should always be part of the equation.

Carrie said...

Thanks for this post Jenni! I have been considering weaning because of all the struggles I have been having with supply and depression, but you have encouraged me to press on, at least for a few more months! Thanks!

Sara Winters said...

Thank you for this post. I need a reminder sometimes as to why I am doing this... My son is almost 19 months and nurses more than he eats solids. None of my friends or family nursed their children this long, but I know that I need to stick it out at least until he is 2. Today I tried to get my son to eat food rather than nurse. He flat out refused the food and became increasingly frantic as I tried to get him to eat rather than nurse. It was not a good thing. I realized he needed to nurse, not just because he was hungry, but for the comfort as well. I think we'll be going back to letting him set the pace on this...

Again- thanks for the post. Affirmation is a wonderful thing.

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