breastfeeding a toddler: the myths and the reality

November 12, 2010

It took me a long time to realize I wanted to breastfeed beyond a year. Well, that's not completely true– it took me a long time to figure out I wanted to breastfeed. Once I was in the game I was in it for the long haul. I'm pleased to be still nursing our toddlby at 14 months, it works for me and him and us. It less strange than I thought it would; it's been a gradual evolution. I didn't just wake up one day to a huge kid on my boob and think, "AHHHHHH!" To me, he's still seems like a little dude.

Before we continue, I'm not saying everybody needs to breastfeed to the age of five– I'm just saying do what works for your family. Some kids don't want to breastfeed that long. My mother-in-law could never get any of her kids to make it past a year, they just weren't interested. What I do find silly is stopping because of some arbitrary date, a year, etc. The idea that any specific age is "too old" rubs me the wrong way. Each mom is different, each child is different. You wean at 6 months? 14 months? 24 months? Good for you. Stop because you want to! Because it's not working for you anymore! Amen sisters, I certainly feel that way some days.

To people who aren't all that comfortable with breastfeeding, full-term nursing can have an ick factor. Just like how during pregnancy people love to butt in and offer all kinds of unsolicited advice they continue to drop these lovely gems on you throughout parenting. (Advice that sometimes isn't particularly advice even, just flat our judgment.) I had someone tell me to never let the jude sleep in our bed because, "He would never leave and he would sleep there until he was in middle school. Disgusting, those people!" I kept my trap shut and didn't tell her, "Hi, we're cosleeping right now and it works great for us." It's no surprise that nursing a toddler or older child definitely falls into that category of unasked-for judgment, especially with how rarely it is seen in public or portrayed in the media. Unfortunately it just isn't customary in America anymore.

If they can ask for it, they're too old.
I've always found this argument laughable, because what exactly do you think a crying infant is doing? Asking for it. Maybe a better way to phrase their point would be, if they can ask for it with words they're too old. What about the precocious 5 month old who can sign 'milk' in sign language? Is that asking for it? The 10 month old who calls for mimimimimi? Is that asking for it? It's a silly rule that doesn't take into account the special circumstances of each child. So what if they CAN ask for it in a complete sentence? Is the child who asks, "Nurse now, mama?" less deserving of having his or her needs met?

Part of this argument stems from people who are afraid of kids running around screaming, "BOOBS, BOOBIES!" and flinging their mother's shirts up in the grocery store. That's a manners and discipline issue, not an extended breastfeeding one. (Also, I wish some compassion for those frazzled moms, they probably aren't crazy about that either.)

He/she should really be eating solid foods (implied, only solid foods).
One of the greatest advantages to nursing a toddler is nutrition. As picky eating begins it gets harder and harder to force their little butts into a chair to sit down for a hearty meal. They are too busy learning to stop and eat! Offering breastmilk is a guarantee that a toddler will get some good stuff into their belly today. As they learn to feed themselves it's like a fail-safe backup plan– nursing can be there to fill in the cracks on the days they don't consume much.

But wait– breastmilk loses nutrition after 6 months/ 9 months/ etc.
This myth is a straight out lie. At no point does breastmilk lose nutritional value or lose the protection of antibodies. "Breast milk continues to provide substantial amounts of key nutrients well beyond the first year of life, especially protein, fat, and most vitamins." and, "Human milk expressed by mothers who have been lactating for more than one year has significantly increased fat and energy contents, compared with milk expressed by women who have been lactating for shorter periods. During prolonged lactation, the fat energy contribution of breast milk to the infant diet can be significant."
(more on the continued nutritional content of breastmilk)

He/she really needs to be drinking cow's milk.
Why? The recommendation for switching formula-fed babies to cow's milk around a year of age does not apply to breastfed children. Why would you switch them away from milk made just for them to milk made just for baby cows? There's nothing particularly wrong with cow milk in my book, but there's also no indicated evidence that we should be in a rush to switch over.

If you don't wean him/her soon they'll never stop! / you're going to raise her/him to be a titty-baby!
Sorry kids, this one doesn't hold up either. Breastfeeding and extended breastfeeding are in no way related to how needy or dependent your child will be. Studies show that children who are allowed to wean at their own pace have increased confidence that their needs are being met and are therefore more comfortable, not less. Children who are breastfed longer are at no additional risk of having social problems. (more on the social adjustment of breastfed children)

There's no reason to keep doing that, you're just getting some kind of sick enjoyment out of it.
Yeah, people really say that one. Sorry to break their hearts, but there are a lot of times that I am definitely NOT getting any enjoyment out of being a human jungle-jim and dairy bar. It works for us but "enjoyment" is not the right word. Enjoyment implies a certain amount of selfishness, which is ridiculous when you consider that mom and child are working together as a dyad. It takes two to tango, and as any parent will tell you, you can't FORCE a toddler to do anything. If they don't want to nurse, trust me, they won't. Closeness, bonding, comfort, nutrition, definitely! It can even be a valuable tool in your parenting toolbox. But sick selfish enjoyment? Pretty unlikely in most cases.

Well, it's just not natural!
Oh dear. Really? How do you think your ancestors survived? Breastfeeding, often as long as necessary. For people who find fault in full-term nursing it sometimes helps to point out that the "authorities" in these fields recognize its value. The WHO emphasizes nursing to the age of two and beyond. The AAP recommends through at least the first year and then, "Increased duration of breastfeeding confers significant health and developmental benefits for the child and the mother... There is no upper limit to the duration of breastfeeding and no evidence of psychologic or developmental harm from breastfeeding into the third year of life or longer." (more on breastfeeding past a infancy is normal)

It is scientifically recognized that nursing beyond infancy is best for mother and child (as long as each wishes to continue). It is a biological fact that nursing beyond infancy was the norm for the human race prior to the industrial revolution. So normal, natural, yes, it is. It has certainly fallen out of favor these days but 100 years doesn't erase the impact of many hundreds of years.

This is the best way I've seen it explained: Mammals nurse their young. We are mammals; We nurse our young. In nature most mammals nurse their young for twice their period of gestation. We gestate for 9-10 months, therefore we should continue to nurse through 18-20 months. It makes sense, no?  I've always liked that way of thinking about it. It seems very common sense.

Here's the reality of nursing a toddler: Some days we nurse less, some days more. Some days he is hungry, some days he is sad. He is healthy and happy and we're going to keep doing it– even when he tries to do a handstand on my throat to get there. Because my son is over a year old doesn't mean he doesn't need that comfort available to him, or that awesome nutrition in his diet. We'll just see how it works out for us and go with the flow. Get yourself educated, haters. Word.

(The links on this post all lead to kellymom, which provides a great resource for information about breastfeeding.)
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