Long before I was pregnant I was asked how long I would breastfeed. As a health professional, breastfeeding predates that positive pregnancy test - often by many years. In pharmacy school, you learn about the benefits of breastfeeding during the usual infant nutrition lecture. In the classroom, the immunologic and nutritional benefits are compared to modern formula offerings and the take-home message is that the Breast is Best but Formula is Fine (too).
At the time, my social group was comprised of other pharmacy students. These infant nutrition lectures made their way into our lives and became topics of conversation over drinks and late night phone calls. We'd wonder how long we'd nurse our babies, or if we would at all. One friend said she'd stop when her kids were old enough to ask for it. Another friend had no idea. And so it went, these musings on the future.
Now in our thirties, most of those friends did or are breastfeeding their babies. Most for at least a year. Most stopping or planning to stop when they go back to work. Recently, a few friends decided to continue until their babies self-wean (likely feeding until after age 2). And me?
I was breastfed for almost a year and my mom breastfed my twin brother and sister when I was four. I remember getting my mom glasses of water as she fed the twins. At the time, breastfeeding was the most normal thing in the world.
So, whenever breastfeeding questions roll around to me, I generally say something like, "I don't know, for a while." I mean, does it matter? It's just breastfeeding. If they push, I say for over a year. If they balk, I point to the World Health Organization which states that "exclusive breastfeeding is recommended up to 6 months of age, with continued breastfeeding along with appropriate complementary foods up to two years of age or beyond." Same goes for the Canadian Pediatric Society. In a policy statement on breastfeeding, the American Academy of Pediatrics also recommends that "breastfeeding be continued for at least the first year of life and beyond for as long as mutually desired for mother and child...there is no upper limit to the duration of breastfeeding."
And today? I have a 15 month old baby. I have no plans to stop breastfeeding her anytime soon...
In what is often called 'extended breastfeeding', toddler nursing is a very, very different beast than infant nursing. Toddlers are fast nursers, they move around a lot, they ask to nurse, they have teeth, they eat regular food, they pull your shirt down, they play with your face when they nurse. But, they are also prone to infections (daycare, anyone?) and benefit from the immunologic benefits of breastmilk - not to mention the comfort, connection and nutrition they continue to receive from the close connection provided while nursing.
Unfortunately, it is my experience that these benefits are kept quiet. Somehow, they are outweighed by social taboo. And it is because of this taboo that people feel it appropriate to question extended breastfeeding. They are concerned because the baby can eat baby food. The baby is learning to crawl. To walk and talk. To ask for milk. Essentially, the baby is becoming a little adult and no adult should be breastfed. It is uncomfortable to look at an aware child suckling on their mother's breast. It is uncommon and culturally it is sexualized.
This post isn't about the challenges or controversies of nursing a toddler - quite the opposite. It is about the normalcy of extended breastfeeding. The perfect naturalness of feeding a small child. It is about the fact that many moms feed beyond a year, unexceptionally. And that this behaviour, this choice, is the most simple of human acts. It is not sexual, restrictive or illogical. It is natural. It is normal. It is simple. And it is a perfectly acceptable choice for as long as is mutually beneficial for mother and child.
For those that are curious about extended breastfeeding, either because you know someone who is doing it, because you plan to do it yourself, because you are doing it or because you think it may be weird but you're not sure, it helps to hear from women who have been there. And also to hear about the research that has been done showing that nursed toddlers turn out just fine. For those that wish to learn more, there is a fantastic radio documentary called "Breastfeeding Beyond Infancy" by Dr. Vanessa Lowe, a clinical psychologist, radio host, musician and mother (via Mothering Magazine - another good source for extended breastfeeding).
Breastfeeding Beyond Infancy by Knitwise Media
For more information, check out the following sites:
- Kellymom on Breastfeeding an Older Infant
- Dr. Jack Newman on Breastfeeding a Toddler
- Le Leche League on Extended Breastfeeding
- Hobo Mama Lauren Wayne
- Melodie at Breastfeeding Moms Unite
- Bettina Forbes and Danielle Rigg at Best for Babes
- PhD in Parenting on Child Led Weaning
- Leigh at Marvelous Kiddo who lovingly was/is Nursing Two
Photo of fellow extended nurser Hobo Mama Lauren Wayne.