Six myths about breastfeeding toddlers and preschoolers

Breastfeeding beyond the first year has been something of a hot topic over on The Leaky Boob page this week.  It started when I shared this image from Health Canada.

Healthy Canada extending breastfeeding image, breastfeeding is not just for newborns

The conversation quickly went from “YAY!” and “awww!” to “gross,” and “that’s sexual abuse of a child.”  You can check it out yourself here but it may not be too good for your blood pressure and that’s with having deleted the worst of the comments.  The next day I shared another related post presenting the perspective of a rather well-balanced 12 year old that remembers weaning at 4 years old.  That thread on Facebook got pretty ugly too.

As I read through the comments I was a bit puzzled as to what the outcry was about.  Putting the pieces together I began to see that it came down to what is really just some misunderstandings.  Myths about breastfeeding beyond the first year and the women that are willing to do so fueled these passionate (AKA really, really angry) responses to these posts.  Then the mothers that are fine breastfeeding beyond the first year were hurt, feeling judged based on myths that they did not find to be true of themselves.  Some got defensive.  And then more misunderstandings happened.  It was a vicious cycle.

To help clear up the misunderstanding, let’s take a look at some of the (surprisingly) common myths held about natural duration breastfeeding.

Myth #1: Moms that breastfeed beyond the first year and definitely into the 3rd year or beyond are trying to keep their children as babies and can’t let go and let them grow up.  If you don’t stop when they are young, they’ll never stop.

I’ve never met a parent that didn’t experience their child growing up and leaving various stages as bittersweet.  We go into parenting knowing that’s the deal, and let’s be honest here, we’re all looking forward to being done with diapers when the time comes even though we’ll be sad when they don’t quite fit to cuddle on our laps any more.  The moms I’ve talked to and from my personal experience, breastfeeding beyond 12 months isn’t about holding on to our child’s infancy, but there is a lot about embracing where they are in the moment.  If they still want to breastfeed, fine, no arbitrary date on a calendar they can’t read dictates their needs or our response.  As of yet there is no record of an adult needing their mother with them because they never weaned, really don’t think we need to worry about that.

Besides, breastfeeding a toddler or preschooler really is nothing like breastfeeding an infant.  Gymnurstics, squirmy excitement, multitasking, etc., one can’t be breastfeeding a toddler and think “aw, it’s just like cuddling them that first day!”  Even when they are falling asleep at the breast and miraculously still (and mom likely is falling asleep finally too) there’s nothing to confuse between those newborn tiny baby days where they fit into the crook of your arm at 7 pounds and the big ol’ toddler days with 30 pounds of limbs covering your lap.  I am never more aware of just how fast my daughter is growing up than in those moments and breastfeeding isn’t helping me hold on, it’s helping her hold on as she gradually transitions from baby to toddler to preschooler to school aged child.

Myth #2: Breastfeeding beyond the first year is for the mom’s benefit, not for the child.

This could only be said by someone that hasn’t breastfed beyond the first 12 months.  I can’t quite grasp this, I can’t get my child to give me a kiss, put on her shoes, or eat her food if she doesn’t want to, how in the world am I going to force her to breastfeed?  And why would I?  I mean, seriously, there are teeth in that mouth, for me to be willing to allow that mouth on my breast there has to be some very rearust established and I’m not going to risk getting bit just “for my benefit.”  And breastfeeding a toddler or preschooler isn’t all rainbow farting unicorns either, it can be very challenging and while I’m no martyr I’m also honest and realistic enough to admit that not only are there some special sweet moments breastfeeding beyond the first 12 months but there are also some crazy hard moments that I can’t stand.  Breastfeeding beyond the first 12 months isn’t for the mom’s benefit, it is for the mom and child’s benefit together.

Myth #3: Natural duration breastfeeding means a child won’t learn how to eat solids or use a cup.  Breastfeeding should stop when the child gets teeth.

Say whaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaat?  Where did that idea come from?  Seriously, I can’t even begin to understand how someone made that rather large leap.  Some babies are born with teeth, some cut them as early as a 2-4 months.  Having teeth does not negate the nutritional and developmental requirements a child has.  Not all babies warm up to solids right away but generally toddlers grasp the concept of eating solids and drinking from a cup quite well.  One word for you: cheerios.  All my girls that breastfed beyond the first year were well into solids and drinking out of a cup by the time their first birthday rolled around.  Cake smashing was an event they enjoyed.  Avocado was a favorite first food as well as banana, sweet potatoes, and chicken, and more, all by the first year.  I have had my toddler finish at the breast and immediately sign “eat” or “drink.”  She’s not confused, she just wants to have her boob, her cup, her cake, and to eat it too.

So let me set the record straight: breastfeeding for long beyond the first 12 months will not inhibit a child’s developmental ability to eat and drink other foods.

Myth #4: Mothers that breastfeed beyond a year are trying to force all other mothers to breastfeed beyond a year even if other mothers are uncomfortable doing so.  Also, they judge any mother that doesn’t breastfeed beyond a year.

As I mentioned earlier, I’ve got my hands full trying to get my own kids to do things, I have absolutely no desire to try and get anyone else to do anything else.  Sharing information and promoting conversation is great, I’m all for it, but I don’t have the energy to force anyone to do anything.  Breastfeed, don’t breastfeed.  You don’t need my approval and I’m not looking to give it.  You can breastfeed for 3 minutes, 3 days, 3 weeks, 3 months, or 3 years, I will support you.  You may not breastfeed at all and whatever your reason, I can still support you as a person and fellow mother.  My choices are not a reaction nor a judgment on yours.  The information I share is not intended to guilt or to shame, simply share.  Conversation is great but if you don’t want to talk about it, that’s fine, there are lots of other people that do.

So now that we got that cleared up, let’s be friends.  You take care of your kids, I’ll take care of mine.  If we can learn from each other and encourage each other along the way, that would be awesome.  If not… I bet there’s a place where you can find that and it will work for you and some place else for me.

Myth #5: Breasts are for sex so breastfeeding past 12 months is sexual abuse.  Breasts are genitals and having a child suck on them is pedophilia.

Just… no.  This myth is one giant ball of NO.  Stop and think about it for just a minute.  There is nothing, I repeat NOTHING that would constitute as sexual abuse at 18 months that was acceptable to do to a child at 6 weeks.  People, please.  No.  Breastfeeding doesn’t suddenly turn into a sex act simply because of a birthday (or two or three).  Breasts have a powerful sexual attraction to them, biologically men are drawn to find female breasts attractive in looking for a mate.  Which makes sense because if they mate, well, breasts will be needed to feed the end result of that mating.  Babies need boobies.  Men are attracted to a mate that can feed babies.  It’s all kind of linked.  That doesn’t mean a child suckling at the breast is performing some kind of sexual act.  GIANT BALL OF NO.  Children are not sexually mature and hopefully a 3 year old hasn’t been exposed to the lies from society telling them that a woman’s body is first and foremost for the pleasure of others and selling things and all they know is that their mother is safe and warm and her milk is for them.  Children do not understand the concept of sex, that would be projecting adult ideas onto them.  In other words: if you see breastfeeding as a sexual act you have your own issues to deal with and you should leave the child out of it.

Myth #6: Breastfeeding after 12 months will cause a child mental health issues.

Thankfully, while there is a rise in mental health issues amongst today’s teens, breastfeeding does not appear to be related.  At. All.  Is “extended breastfeeding messing up our kids?”  The answer is a resounding no.

I’m willing to bet that if these naysayers against natural duration breastfeeding actually met most mothers who practiced natural duration breastfeeding out with her child, unless her child was actually breastfeeding when the encountered them, they would think she was a normal, healthy mother lovingly caring for her children.

And they would be right.

Because she is a normal, healthy mother lovingly caring for her children.

Maybe breastfeeding beyond a year isn’t for you, maybe you’re uncomfortable seeing it.  Maybe it’s no big deal to you and you have enjoyed that connection with your own child.  Let’s let the myths go, they cloud the issue and distract from open dialogue, breaking down what could otherwise be a supportive, encouraging exchange of ideas in conversation.

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What other myths have you heard related to breastfeeding past the first 12 months?  What has been your experience breastfeeding beyond a year?

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Comments

  1. Myth #5. Ugh. My twins just turned 1 and I plan I letting them self wean. I have already been met with resistance (not from family). This myth bugs me the most. Here we go again, turning a womans body into something that isn’t hers. When we discuss this issue like THIS, a woman is always being objectified. It’s saying that her body can only be used 1 way, either for sex or for feeding babies, never both. When you make it about sex, you’re plain and simple objectifying that woman.

  2. I love this post, and the last one about extended breastfeeding. I think it’s so sad that people try to sexualize breastfeeding. With both of my girls I planned to let them nurse until at least two, and then evaluate whether we both wanted/needed to continue. However, they both ended up self-weaning at around 15-16 months. Looking back I probably could have encouraged them to continue longer, but they stopped asking, so I stopped offering. Now I’m on baby number 3, and I kind of have the same plan. I would love to make it to two this time, and then see what we decide from there.

  3. I’ve seen all of these myths floating around on message boards and responses to articles and FB pages. But I have personally been told by a relative a sort of mix of #1 and 2. She kept trying to coax me to just admit that at that point (about 20 months old) I was really just doing it for me and not wanting to let her grow up and really, this is just ALL about me now isn’t it??? It was so frustrating. This relative then proceeded to sneak cow’s milk to my daughter (who had never had it before, and whose older sister has a milk allergy) and then coax her into telling me how very much she liked it. As if to convince me I could just stop this nonsense already.

  4. I’m on month 22 and I don’t think my daughter will wean anytime soon. It’s just at nap and bedtime, but she needs that time with me and I with her.

    BUT. Before I had nursed beyond a year? I honestly would have found it gross. I was subject to society’s bull. Which is why I nurse uncovered in public (though that doesn’t happen much anymore) and blog about nursing. If I don’t normalize it, who will?

  5. Colette Portman says:

    I have breastfed all of my 4 children, my 9 year old I fed until she stopped on her own at 15 months but my youngest son who is 22 months has shown no signs of wanting to stop yet and I will stop when “he” is ready he only feeds at night I don’t see a problem with it, it’s his little bit if comfort, he doesn’t have a dummy or anything. I would like to have stopped around 15 months but I couldn’t stop him, it upset us both so I thought what’s the point, it’s not harming anyone else and my husbands has been very supportive.

  6. My mother breastfed me until I was 3. I don’t remember it but now that I have a baby of my own we’ve talked in great length about her experience. She says she allowed me to self wean and I just happened to need breastfeeding for longer than my sister did (who breastfed until about 18 months). I wasn’t a good eater so at the very least she knew I was getting the nutrition I needed through breastfeeding. Plus, it was a nice way for me to calm down and get ready for sleep at night, especially in those very busy toddler years. What a great example for me to follow with my own baby, who just turned 3 months and despite being a preemie (born 7 weeks early and spent 4 weeks in the NICU) is great at the breast! Kids will most often tell you what they need if only you are listening. I’m so glad my mom listened and followed her instincts despite how many people frowned at her choice.

  7. I have found out that the aim of breastfeeding support is to increase the rates of ignition of breastfeeding, the length of breastfeeding, and the exclusivity of breastfeeding, read more in my blog http://writing-help.com/blog/support-for-breastfeeding-mothers-an-example-paper/

  8. Excellent post! I think to genuinely understand breastfeeding you need to do it. My eldest child was Formula fed and even breastfeeding little babies was alien to me. However, I’m currently still nursing my 42MONTH old!

  9. Thank you for this post, as I have been breastfeeding my preschooler girl who will be four in a month’s time i know that sometimes others see me as a freak. We have been doing baby-led weaning, and still child led weaning with her, and it’s worked wonders for us. Nowadays that i have my second baby, a boy who is almost nine months old, my girl nurses knowingly that we still have that for us. Although difficult juggling because baby is very very distractible, i sometimes manage to tandem feed them. I know in my heart that my kids will breastfeed for as long as they need it, and that’s up to them and no one else.

  10. Breastfeeding past age 2 is ridiculous. There really is no need to after that point. A child has stages of it’s life in the first few years and hanging onto the breast is pointless at age 2-4. Both mother and child need to move forward. The same nutrition can be obtained from the solid foods they start eating, it doesn’t need to be from the mothers milk.

  11. You have no reason to comment your negative opinions. You have no evidence to support your claim and phrasing your OPINION as a fact is insulting.

  12. I have two kids, and I feel that as their mother I know what is best for them. That being said, I would never in my wildest dreams presume to know what is best for other people’s children. Having kids doesn’t make you an expert on other people’s children, and if babies, toddlers, children, whatever you want to call them, need to breastfeed, and the mother is ok with continuing breastfeeding, then who are you people to presume that you know what is best for other people’s children? Mind your own and keep your judgement for your own behaviour if you really need it to sleep at night. I’m happy to give my kids what they need to cope with life, and I know my kids are healthy and provided for. As for anyone who actually believes myth #5, get some counseling, please.

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