Recently I was chatting to a mother at a local baby group. We were chatting about the subject of breastfeeding and what age to wean (as in, fully stop, not just start solids) and she said that although it was going well, and she could see herself happily carrying on for longer, in her head was her mother’s voice telling her that “women who breastfeed beyond a year are doing it for themselves alone, and are getting some sort of self indulgent pleasure from continuing” This isn’t the first time I’ve heard such sentiments expressed. Once when describing to a local nurse the various mothers and ages of children involved in our breastfeeding group,after hearing one of the ages of a child nursing she exclaimed “oh well, that is definitely just the mother doing it for herself in that case! it must be!!” Interesting. I wonder if women who makes such arbitrary judgement calls have ever experienced nursing a child over a year. I have also heard the “there are no real benefits after a year anyway” statement thrown around as well, which implies what? Carrying on breastfeeding beyond a year is pointless? harmful? silly? a waste of time?
Let’s look at this. Are there any “real” benefits to nursing a child over a year?
A mother’s body does an incredible job growing the life that is inside her, from tiny cells into a baby with a beating heart and breathing lungs and a brain. A miracle. Then the mother’s body gives birth…an amazing accomplishment. After that the mother’s body continues to sustain the life it’s grown for the last nine months through feeding it. Physicians agree that the main source of food for the first year of the babies life should be breast milk. Although somewhere around the middle of the first year babies can start to experiment with tasting, touching, and playing with solid foods, breast milk should remain the babies primary food. So then what? At one year this flow of life from the mother’s body is abruptly cut off….because….it’s been a year, the baby is walking, talking, or some other indication that it’s “too old” for it’s mother’s milk…I think people are more freaked out about it simply because breasts are involved, and they may possibly be saying babies are “too old” to be in such close intimate contact with the mother’s breasts at this point.
Anthropologist Katherine Dettwyler has done research into the weaning ages of primates and mammals to determine a “natural weaning age for humans. Details of her study can be found here, but to sum it up, she determined a normal natural weaning age to be any time between three and seven years! Now before anyone starts freaking out at me, it certainty does mean people have to nurse this long, but for those who do find themselves feeding children beyond a year, it can be reassuring to know that this is physically natural for us as humans.
So what are the benefits of this normal natural behaviour? Have a look here.
So there may be just some benefit to continuing for the child.
And yes, there may just be some benefits to the mother….like these.
Why is it then that mothers who continue to nurse beyond a year are called selfish, self indulgent, eccentric, strange, weird? Why is it that if they do choose to carry on, it becomes a large defining factor of who they are. “Oh yes, that mother..the one STILL breastfeeding”
As someone who has found herself in the sustained nursing camp, I have not experienced any out and out criticism. No one ever says anything to my face….but I am sure they have thought these things about me. It shouldn’t matter, and it doesn’t. I am not saying all this to be defensive or to make a case for sustained breastfeeding. I just want to set the record straight for anyone who actually believes there is “no real benefit” and that the mother is doing it “for herself” and that it is a sick and self indulgent thing to do. Or worse, that she is spoiling her child and being an overly indulgent parent. Also, to encourage any mother out there who is feeling it’s time to stop, simply because they feel everyone else expects them too…that if they feel happy to carry on, there are a lot of good solid reasons to.
Another thing. I don’t think many of the mothers who find themselves nursing older children ever planned to. I think it’s something that simply happens. A lot of us started out taking it one day at a time…and this is where it’s lead us. So if you’re reading this and you have a new baby in arms and can not contemplate the thought of feeding beyond three weeks, let alone three years..don’t worry. Just take it one day at a time!