When I share our breastfeeding experience with others, many are often shocked to discover that my little guy nursed for just over 3.5 years. Yes, 3.5 years! It is a topic that many feel very strongly about on both sides and something that many (particularly it seems here in the US) are extremely uncomfortable with- as we saw last year with Time magazine's 'Are You Mom Enough?' cover. Much of the reaction I saw stated that nursing a child past infancy was disgusting, wrong and even made the connection to pedophilia! Wow! The reality is- it is none of those things and honestly, I believe it is becoming more and more common, many just choose not to talk about it. So today in honor of Breastfeeding Awareness Month, I wanted to share a little bit more about nursing past a year and child led weaning.
Why nurse beyond a year? What are the benefits?
First of all, the actual recommended *minimum* age for nursing according to the World Heath Organization is two years old. I am not certain where the idea that the cutoff be a year, I only assume because this is when formula fed babies make the switch to cows milk and away from bottles. Breastfeeding is completely different! First of all, you don't have the issues with teeth troubles, which is why bottles are not supposed to be used past a year. Second, formula doesn't change to meet a baby's nutritional needs so it would make sense that as a baby grows they would need something different to supply those needs...breast milk on the other hand is always changing to provide just what baby/toddler needs. It continues to provide nutritional value and immune support throughout. But it's not just beneficial for baby, it's beneficial for mom too- reducing risk of breast and ovarian cancer! Basically, many of those same benefits breastfeeding provides in the first year continue to carry on.
For us personally, while these other factors were very important of course, I think the most important factor was the emotional support it provided. I have said before that in his first few years of life, Shaun experienced a LOT of changes. His daddy deployed when he was just 9 months old- we moved cross country to stay with family for those 6 months, then back again...that's two cross country moves before he even reached 18 months old. Add in multiple trips back to the midwest within a short time frame, constant training and field ops for daddy and all the uncertainty that comes with military life- it would be a lot for any young child to handle...especially one with Autism who we now know does not handle transitions well. Nursing provided comfort and consistency that he so desperately needed and I truly believed helped make all of these transitions a little easier. I truly felt like he needed that support longer, and was happy to be able to help him in that way.
Is it weird to nurse an older child?
Honestly, I had the same thought initially as well. When you're nursing a baby, its hard to imagine nursing an older child. It was pointed out to me that each day past a year old is just that...one more day. It never reached a point where it felt weird or uncomfortable or wrong because to us, it was just one more day. There was never some magical cutoff where suddenly he seemed to old. Again, I'll add that with Shaun's developmental delays did make him seem younger in some ways, so would I have felt the same if he was on track with his peers? Given our experience now, I don't believe it would change anything, but I really cannot say since it has been my only experience thus far.
How do you handle negative responses?
Honestly, I feel for the most part I was extremely lucky that those close to us were pretty supportive. Sure, we'd get a few remarks here and there about him still nursing or asking when we intended to stop, but for the most part did not have any major backlash. Again, I'm not sure if his developmental delays made it easier to accept...after all, one common argument is that a child who is old enough to ask is too old. My little guy was still unable to verbalize that at 3 years old. Unfortunately, I know many others are not so lucky and receive a lot of negative responses. My best advice is just to educate yourself and stick to your guns. It seems many people think you're doing it out of convenience (easier than weaning) or don't know the benefits themselves. When I did come across negativity, I found it was much more effective to share the facts and all the research I'd done than to become defensive. But in the end, you'll never change everyone's minds and really it's no one's business but your own. You do what you know is best for your child, and ignore the naysayers!
What is child led weaning?
Child led weaning is exactly what it sounds like- allowing your child to decide in their own time when they no longer need to nurse. Typically speaking, most children will wean themselves between the ages of 2-4 years old, though some may wean sooner and others later. For us, this was the best option because again, I truly feel like Shaun needed to nurse longer than many kids might have. For a kid who doesn't deal well with transitions, I can only imagine that weaning before he was ready would have been extremely difficult on him emotionally. But because we let Shaun decide in his own time, it was incredibly and shockingly easy and painless. He went from nursing several times a day one week, to completely giving it up the next week...he knew he was ready and that was that. I was beyond shocked that it happened so quickly as I'd truly started to wonder if he ever would stop on his own...I do believe our case is perhaps not the norm, as most kids will gradually cut back naturally until they're no longer nursing at all and not just out and out quit...but regardless, they will eventually make that decision!! I am certainly glad we went that route with Shaun!!
These are just a few of the many common questions on the subject. I don't claim to be an expert or know every last detail about the subject- I can only share our own personal experience and why it worked for us. My hope in sharing our experiences is to help bring up the conversation and let others know that it truly isn't that uncommon, and to encourage moms who may be interested in trying it themselves. As with many hot topic parenting issues, it's definitely not something for everyone, but it was the right thing for my son and our family.
Do you have questions about extending breastfeeding or child led weaning that I didn't cover here? Please feel free to leave a comment, or if you're more comfortable e-mail me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. Again, I'm no expert but I am happy to offer any encouragement and support that I can!
If you breastfed your child past a year, any tips for moms considering that route? How long did you nurse? Clever ways you handled naysayers? I would love to hear your experiences as well!