Touching After Weaning

by Cindy MacDougall
Cindy and Eddie

The author and her son.

 

My youngest child, four-year-old Eddie, likes my breasts. He likes to hug them, and he will sneak a hand down my shirt occasionally. The family joke is that E. is a boob man.

Eddie loved to breastfeed, and continued to do so until his fourth birthday. When we finally weaned, it was a long and gentle process, which I wrote about in my parenting column here.

After weaning, Eddie still showed a need to touch the “babas” that far outweighed my patience for being touched. I had given him four solid years of nursing, and had been breastfeeding for a total of about nine and a half years over four kids. I was more than ready to have my body to myself.

What I hadn’t counted on was that Eddie and my breasts seemed to have a relationship entirely independent form me – at least in his mind.

“The babas are nice and soft,” he explained once. “I love them. I want to hug them, please.”

“But I don’t want you to touch me right now, Eddie,” I said.

“Oh, I’m not going to touch you, Mama,” he reassured me. “Just the babas.”

Another time, I explained to him that he was a big boy who had been weaned, and that meant no more touching my babas. He erupted in floods of tears.

“But mama, I gave up drinking the babas like a big boy,” he sobbed (taking the opportunity to lay his head on my chest.) “I didn’t know I had to give up touching them. I have to touch them, Mama, sometimes.”

We know from childhood development experts that children need touch in order to properly grow physically, mentally and emotionally. I touch and hug my kids often, as does their dad.

But I had never thought about my children’s needs to touch me back, and especially about a former nursling’s need to occasionally reconnect with the breast as they continue to grow away from being a member of a breastfeeding dyad.

I know Eddie is not alone in this need, as my other children liked to touch my breasts after weaning (though not nearly as much) and I had watched friends go through this same struggle. But I didn’t know how common this need is amongst children, so I did a bit of Googling to find out.

The La Leche League International message board has several long threads of posts about toddler and pre-schoolers touching breasts after weaning. One mother there described her child as “boob-obsessed,” and others described patting, rubbing, pinching and touching. Some kids were sneaky about it; others outright asked; some needed to touch the breasts to fall asleep.

Dr. Laura Markham, a clinical psychologist and founder of the parenting web site Aha! Parenting, wrote about weaned children touching the breast in her “Ask the Doctor” feature.

“It is very common for toddlers to need to touch their mother’s breasts for comfort or to fall asleep for as much as a year after weaning,” she wrote to a concerned mother. “Your breasts symbolize comfort and safety and love to her…. So if she is clingy, just give her lots of extra reassurance and realize that this is the final stage of weaning.”

It’s good to know Eddie is normal, if enthusiastic, in his need to have some cuddle time with his, ahem, my, “babas.” And the closer we move to his fifth birthday, the less often he seems to need to touch them.

If you’re dealing with a similar situation, there’s no need to change or challenge the habit if you’re both happy and comfortable.

However, if it’s driving you bananas, think of this as an excellent opportunity to teach your child about body autonomy. Your breasts are yours, after all, and it’s important to teach kids that each of us own our own bodies, and no one can touch us, or them, without consent (barring medical necessity, safety, etc.) That gives permission to set the same limits with their own bodies, to be able to say “no” to unwanted touch.

With Eddie, I made rules: no touching the “babas” unless he asked, only at home, and only a hug or cuddle. He seems to be approaching the end of this “final stage of weaning” and hasn’t asked in a while.

Despite what our society tells us, touching each other, with permission, is generally healthy. For small children, the breasts are about love and nutrition, not sexuality. If we are comfortable with that and allow them healthy touch, it teaches them good things about the body and physical forms of affection.

 _________________________

Cindy MacDougall is a writer, a mother of four children, a public relations professional, and a former parenting columnist with the Victoria Times Colonist. She covered health issues for CBC North Radio One for seven years, and is a recipient of the Society of Obstetricians and Gynecologists of Canada’s 2004 Journalism Award for Excellence in Women’s Health Reporting for her radio series “Into the Mouths of Babes: Breastfeeding in the Northwest Territories.”
Share

Breastfeeding beyond Infancy in Developed Countries

By Star Rodriguez for The Leaky [email protected]@b
This post made possible in part by the generous support of Motherlove Herbal Company.
Breastfeeding beyond 12 months

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?

_______________________________

breastfeedingStar Rodriguez is an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant, student, and mother of two in Minnesota.  She has done private practice work, worked with WIC, and now works in a hospital setting.  She is available for online consulting and in-person consults in the Brainerd Lakes area.  She can be reached through the Facebook page of Lactastic Services or you can find more information at www.lactastic.com.
Share