By Star Rodriguez for The Leaky B@@b
Imagine a mom breastfeeding a baby. Now imagine her breastfeeding a toddler. Now a preschooler. Do you feel uncomfortable with any of those images? When do you start to feel a little weird?
In developed countries where breastfeeding duration is low and where nursing in public isn’t seen as often, it’s pretty normal to have a point where you begin to feel a little uncomfortable with thinking about breastfeeding a child. After all, there are a multitude of foods and drink available readily and safely in developed countries, so why on Earth would someone need or want to nurse, say, a three or four year old child?
First, it’s helpful to understand what our natural weaning age probably is. Katherine Dettwyler, Phd, professor of anthropology looked at natural weaning ages of animals and came up with five possible ranges. First, she looked at when permanent molars come in, a normal weaning time for primates. That puts the range at five to six years old for human kids. Animals also often wean babies based on when they reach about a third of their adult body weight. This puts human kiddos at four to seven years old. With some primates, though, adult body size and not weight is the true test; our children would wean naturally, then, somewhere between the end of the second year and the end of the third year. Some mammals nurse until their babies have tripled or quadrupled birth weight; this would mean human babies would naturally wean somewhere between two to three years old. Finally, many mammals wean after the baby has been alive for about six times the length of gestation. Therefore, human babies would breastfeed around four to five years.
Clearly, most of us are not breastfeeding our children until they are six or seven years old in developed countries where they have a plethora of other foods and many social activities. However, there are a lot of women who quietly report to me that they nursed to two or three years, although they don’t tell their friends or extended families, because “they’d think I was crazy!” More often than that, I get moms calling me, asking me how long babies should nurse, and what the benefits are to nursing beyond a year.
Sadly, there aren’t a lot of studies on breastfeeding beyond infancy in the developed world. I’ve been told that this is because there aren’t a lot of women who continue beyond that, and, statistically, that is very true. I see Leakies every day discussing breastfeeding beyond a year, and there are articles and websites that mention it regularly. So I think there are more moms out there doing it than we often admit, but it might be difficult to gather them up in one place for a study.
That all said, we can surmise a few things from studies in less developed areas and what we already know about breastfeeding and breastmilk.
First, breastfeeding can foster independence. Yes, you read that correctly. Children are learning to be independent, especially through toddlerhood. I am aware of this every day as my three year old rushes to tell me, “I do it!” and gets incredibly mad if I try to help her, or if she needs help. Children still are dependent on their primary caregivers, though. Nursing meets a lot of their dependent, nurturing needs and can help them to feel as though they are able to express their independence while knowing that they are able to be comforted and close to their mothers when they need to be.
Breastfeeding also provides antibodies. How many toddlers and preschoolers stick everything in their mouths, as often as they can? How many have no concept of personal hygiene, picking their noses, eating food off the floor, sneezing in the faces of others, and so on? By continuing to breastfeed, you are continuing to provide them with immune protection tailored to the environment that they are in. It won’t stop them from ever getting sick, but it can be helpful to some viruses.
Breastmilk remains tailored to the child and is often something that children can take in even when they are ill and not holding much else down. The calories and fat in breastmilk are not empty calories like many other easily held down liquids (like lemon lime sodas, ginger ales, etc.)
Breastfeeding has analgesic properties to it. Think about how often young children get bumps, bruises, and owies. Carrying around something that can help them to feel better about those is a wonderful thing.
As far as moms are concerned, many of the wonderful things that breastfeeding does for mothers are dose related. For instance, the longer women breastfeed over their lifetime, the more their breast cancer risk is reduced, and that’s certainly not the only health benefit that is tied to duration. Further, mothers who continue breastfeeding continue to produce milk and subsequently burn a few extra calories, too. Who couldn’t use, say, an extra cookie a day?
At the end of the day, the length of time that a mother/baby dyad decides to continue breastfeeding is a very personal thing. Despite the fact that we live in a developed society where extended breastfeeding may not be necessary for survival, it can be a meaningful and beneficial thing to moms and babies.
How do you feel about breastfeeding beyond the first year?
How do you personally determine the duration of breastfeeding with your own children?
How much has cultural expectations impacted how long you were/are willing to breastfeed?