Is breastfeeding past infancy messing up kids?

“I don’t really remember breastfeeding exactly but I remember weaning.”  The bubbly, outgoing 12 year old friend of my own bubbly, outgoing 12 year old daughter, reminded me of a friendly, excited butterfly, flitting about from topic to topic as she danced around our living room while chatting.  Not exactly sure how we got to breastfeeding but it didn’t phase her in the slightest talking about it.

None of my own children remember breastfeeding.  They know they did breastfeed and they’ve seen photographic evidence of this fact but they don’t have any recollection of it.  I asked our friend how old she was when she weaned.

“Four I think, maybe a little older.  My sister was 5 though, she was lucky.”  She began to dance on to another topic.  I brought her back to breastfeeding and asked her what she did remember about breastfeeding and weaning, wanting to know more about her views not only as a 12 year old but the daughter of two physicians.

“I was sad to wean, so sad.  We had a party and I remember it was fun but I liked nursing better than the weaning party.”  Pursed lips and raised eyebrows punctuated this statement.

“Why were you sad about weaning?” I was curious about how she perceived breastfeeding as a 4 year old and how that translated now that she was 12.  Her reaction was priceless: she looked at me like I was stupid and scoffed at me.

“I couldn’t have nurnies any more, of course I was sad.  Nurnies were the best thing ever and now I had to give them up.  I was little, I didn’t like that.  I loved nurnies, of course I was sad to give them up.”

She paused to execute a pirouette.  I took the opportunity to ask what she liked about “nurnies.”

“Well, I don’t know, they were soft and warm.  It just felt good and I think I liked the milk, it was sweet.  But I don’t remember breastfeeding, just how I felt.  Nurnies felt good.  Nurnies felt safe.  Nurnies just felt right.  I don’t really know but I know that I liked nurnies a lot.  And you know what?  I think breastfeeding is more than just good for little kids, it helps them grow up too.  They don’t have to stop when they’re babies, little kids need time to grow up, like…”  She was searching for something as she tried to explain what she meant.

“Like a transition?” I offered.

“Yeah, a transition.  But a slow one over a long time.  It’s not like birds where the mom just kicks them out of the nest.  Having nurnies helps transition, it’s just so nice and I don’t see why it would need to be hurried up, it was good getting to breastfeed for a long time.  I’d have gone longer but I think my mom was ready to be done plus there was my little sister.  She was lucky, she got to go until she was five.”

“You were lucky too, not many children in the USA get what you got.  Even my own children were all weaned by the time they were 3 so far” I tell her.

Her eyes widened: “Really?  Wow, I thought they all breastfed a lot longer.  They act like they did.”

My turn to be surprised.

She explained: “I don’t know, breastfeed kids seem to eat really well, they are what I call high palette kids with more developed tastes I think.  And they are usually so nice and interesting.”

I think of my kids and most of them do seem to have very mature taste but I point out that could just be exposure.  Still, she’s pretty on target here, there is some science that would appear to back her observation.  Unfortunately that science hasn’t always been the case in our house.  I mention that there are many nice people that were formula fed too.  She agreed.

“Are you ever embarrassed that you breastfed so long?  As you’ve gotten older and have seen more of how society acts about breasts, has it ever made you uncomfortable about how long you breastfed?”

Again I receive another looked like I’m a complete idiot.

“What?  Why?  No, that’s just dumb.  I know, I see it in the mall and online, people love boobs being all sexy but come on, we all know what they are really for even if they are being pushed up and air brushed.  Those sexy ladies with their boobs all hanging out, who cares, babies probably see them and get hungry.  They see a sexy model with her boobs out and I bet they are all ‘nurnie, I want nurnie!”

The room erupts with laughter.  I bow out of the conversation, my own 12 year old had been giving me the “stop talking to my friend” look for a little bit and it was time for me to give them their space again.  They go on to joke, strutting like awkward fashion models with their chests thrust out as they make severe faces and I’m reminded of Zoolander.  Fits of giggles as they talk in baby voices about wanting nurnies from imaginary breasts in an imaginary mall or magazine.  Then the butterfly girls flit on to another flower of a topic, deciding they need to take over the kitchen and bake something.

Toddlers are expert multitaskers at the breast.

Toddlers are expert multitaskers at the breast.

A year ago a very good friend of mine shared how she had taken her 4 kids to take a meal to another friend that had a new baby.  Her 13 year old son with her, she wondered if he felt awkward when the new mother began breastfeeding but was proud of him for acting like it was no big deal.  When she asked him about it later he shrugged in a typical 13 year old boy way and said no.  He remembers breastfeeding, he told her, it’s not a big deal.  Like our 12 year old friend, this 13 year old boy understands that feeding babies is what breasts are for.

Yet whenever breastfeeding beyond 12 months comes up in the news or in social media, people express an overwhelming concern for the mental development of these children.  It’s damaging, many commenters claim, that poor child is going to be so confused.  Once they have teeth you must stop!  Once they can talk and ask for it you have to cut them off!  Once they can eat solids, give that child a cup!  Mothers that breastfeed too long are sick, selfish, gross, perverted, and unable to let their child grow up these people usually assert.  Because they aren’t used to seeing what is actually biologically and anthropologically normal duration breastfeeding, they categorize this different choice they don’t understand as being wrong and rationalize that if it’s “wrong” it’s going to mess up the child.

In 2010 a study was released discussing the long term mental health benefits of breastfed children.  That’s right, the long term mental health benefits from extended breastfeeding.  Not mental health disadvantages, not long term sexual issues from extended breastfeeding, not long term dysfunctions from extended breastfeeding, long term mental health benefits of extended breastfeeding.  Which sure sounds like extended breastfeeding is good for the child’s mental health, not damaging.

It’s true that in society today we are conditioned to expect to see breasts in a beer commercial, on display in the windows of the mall, even bouncing around fast food chain ads before we expect to see them feeding an infant, let alone a toddler or preschooler.  Breasts have been hypersexualized to such an extent that many can’t imagine them any other way.  So I can see why people would be concerned.  But children are different, they don’t have the capacity to even understand sex and so wouldn’t think that breastfeeding was anything more than food and comfort.  Adults that say that breastfeeding is sexual are simply revealing their own hang ups and projecting on the child.  And maybe it shouldn’t be the biologically normal thing that needs to change, maybe we should focus on changing culture and take a stand against the objectification and over emphasis on the sexual nature of the female breasts so we can feed our children without fear of it being confused with pedophilia.  What would happen if we left women alone and let them make their own choices by weighing the information?  Stop telling women that the value of their bodies lies in what it can sell, stop telling women what they must or must not do with their bodies, stop telling women that they don’t have say in how they use their bodies.  If a woman wants to breastfeed until her child is 4 years old it is nobody’s business but that of the mother and that child and the evidence is in that there is no reason to believe it will cause mental health issues.

Today breastfeeding into early childhood may not be for everyone, there may be a lot of legitimate reasons not to for any given mother.  But there being a long term risks to their mental health to breastfeed into early childhood isn’t one of them.  My 12 year old was weaned from the breast earlier than any of my children.  When she was 4.5 months I gave up on my breastfeeding goals due to her severe reflux (which didn’t get better with formula, it got much, much worse) and agonizing breast pain that no doctor could identify and the only solution I was given was to wean.  After two trips to the ER because of the pain, I relented and switched her to formula.  Something that grieved me very much at the time.  Watching her hang out with her friend I acknowledged that you couldn’t tell which one was breastfed until she was 4 years and which one was breastfed until she was 4 months.  Both are happy, energetic, smart, well adjusted girls and both have loving, committed parents and neither demonstrate any mental health issues.  So my own personal experience and the research would lead me to believe that no, breastfeeding past infancy isn’t messing up our kids and I’m going to go out on a limb here and say it’s because all that love, all that connection can’t be a bad thing and I’m glad my daughter has a friend so secure and so confident that understands the natural biological function of breasts as feeding tools for babies that they can laugh together at the messages the world sends them about the female form.  If we want to look for what’s messing up kids and their view of sex and women, let’s start somewhere else.

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What about you?  Did you breastfeed long enough to remember?  Or your children?  What are your thoughts on breastfeeding beyond a year?

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Not sure about breastfeeding beyond a certain point?  That’s ok, it may not be for you.  Some women feel comfortable doing so and before you criticize them be informed as to why that might be.  These links may be helpful:

 Evidence on the long-term effects of breastfeeding systematic reviews and meta-analyses

 

Breast milk feeding and cognitive ability at 7-8 years

 

Breastfeeding past infancy fact sheet

 

Breastfeeding beyond infancy in developed countries

 

Continuing breastfeeding beyond the first year

 

The breastfeeding toddler explains

 

I’m not going to try to convince you to breastfeed your toddler

 

Toddler breastfeeding, frustration, and what keeps me going

 

Embracing Beyond

 

Unsupportive support: breastfeeding toddlers and introducing solids

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