By: Mandy Schutt
My daughter is eighteen months old and is still an avid breast feeder.
I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve been asked,
“Are you still nursing her?” ("Yep!")
“How long do you plan on doing that?” (“Until it stops working for either one of us.”)
“Aren’t you afraid she will nurse until she’s in school?” ("Nope.")
I'm all about parental soul searching, and that almost always means-especially for us western mamas- attempting to slough off cultural opinions and expectations and deciding what is best for us as an individual.
While most of us are aware that breast is best, the question often still remains, “But for how long?”
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that breastfeeding continue for at least 12 months, and thereafter for as long as mother and baby desire. The World Health Organization recommends continued breastfeeding up to 2 years of age or beyond. What us Americans consider “extended nursing” is, in truth, just the norm in many other countries.
My personal take as a someone who is pretty well educated on birth, breastfeeding, babies, and- possibly even more importantly- been exposed to breastfeeding relationships in many, many other countries is: "What's the rush?"
…BUT then again, I'm one of those crazy nuts who believes that there is really nothing we need to "train" our children (aka baby mammals) to do. I believe by the default factor of being animals, we instinctively know a heck of a lot more than we, as intellectual beings, give ourselves credit for. Do we need to socialize our children so that they learn things like manners, language appropriate for various settings, sharing, and all that jazz? Of course we do, but in my mind “training” and “socializing” are two very different things.
I also think that, for some reason when it comes to nursing, we polarize our children. We find it acceptable for a child to learn to walk anywhere between 10 and 16 months. One 1yr old might have a very extensive vocabulary, while another child says nothing at the same age. In the same way, some children show clear signs that they are done with the breast at around a year while others don’t show those signs until they are toddlers.
Whenever I work with a client who consults me on a parenting issue they are struggling with, one of my first questions to them is, “Why do you believe that is or is not the right thing to do?”
Their response to that usually answers their own question…and the trick is that there is no right or wrong answer! For example, to the question of how long a mother should wait to wean, one mother might answer,
“I believe it’s the right thing to do now because I’m exhausted all the time and am beginning to really dislike the chore of breastfeeding my baby.”
While another might answer:
“Because my mother used to make fun of women who breastfed their toddlers, so I've always thought it was the wrong thing to do.”
While yet another might answer:
“We both still enjoy nursing so much but I’m I'm worried my baby will want to do it forever!”
You can imagine that there may be a very different “correct” path the above answers would lead a mother to take! Is one mother “more right” than the other? I don’t think so. My choice has been to allow my daughter to self-wean. I reserve the right to change my mind at anytime should something in my life change and create a need for us to close out breastfeeding relationship.
Here is what Dr. Sears says on the subject of self-lead weaning:
Weaning is not a negative term, nor is it something that you do to a child. Weaning is a journey from one relationship to another. The Hebrew word for wean is gamal, meaning "to ripen." In ancient times, when children were breastfed until two or three years of age, it was a joyous occasion when a child weaned. It meant the child was filled with the basic tools of the earlier stages of development and secure and ready to enter the next stage of development. A child who is weaned before his time may show anger, aggression, habitual tantrum-like behavior, anxious attachment to caregivers, and an inability to form deep and intimate relationships. We call these traits diseases of premature weaning…
Former Surgeon General, Dr. Antonia Novello, proclaimed: "It's the lucky baby, I feel, who continues to nurse until he's two." A baby's sucking need lessens sometime between nine months and three years. The age at which this need lessens is individual, yet very few babies are emotionally filled and ready to wean before a year. Have confidence in your intuition.
For my daughter, nursing is still a very important comfort measure. She is an inquisitive, happy toddler and loves to explore! Often this exploration leads to tumbles, scrapes, and tears. Other times it’s just plain old exhaustion that sets in and causes her emotions to fluctuate. During these tough times, she wanders back to mama for the comfort she finds through nursing. Additionally, breastfeeding has provided me with an unequivocal tool for solving my baby’s problems. Does she need a distraction? Hungry? Bored? Feeling overwhelmed? Sleepy and cranky? My breasts continue to be a solution for all of these sorts of scenarios.
I’m thankful that my body still provides my child a safe place to center herself and “reset”. I am okay with using my breasts as “instruments of peace” so to speak! Until my child is verbal and cognitively developed enough for my words and touch to do the same thing that my breasts do now, (and maybe even beyond, though I will need to assess that when the time comes) I feel that the choice to continue nursing is the perfect one for me. My milk provided her with essential nutrients in the first year and now they provide her with essential emotional comforts. Is this not just as important?
I admire any mother who will take the time to question the societal pressures of parenting and standardized expectations to do some real soul-searching on issues such as extended breastfeeding. There really isn’t a wrong or right answer; there is just a personal answer. You know your child and yourself better than anyone! When you allow yourself that truth, decisions like the one about when to wean, become a whole lot easier!