It was the breast of times
Sarah Tennant faces up to her many critics and puts the case for breastfeeding well into toddlerhood for the sake of mother and child
When I first started breastfeeding, two years and eight months ago, nobody cared. This came as something of a shock to me - online, my mum friends from around the globe had primed me to expect filthy glances, exciting confrontations with café owners and the possibility of ending up on the local news station with a story of discrimination and angst. A few American mothers I knew even kept laminated copies of their state laws on breastfeeding in their purses to hand over when asked to leave by Wal-Mart employees (apparently a regular part of their shopping experience). Breastfeeding promised to be an exciting minefield of misogyny and politics, and the activist in me geared up for the challenge.
Several months later, having received countless supportive smiles and whispered words of acclamation, and only one comment that could possibly be construed as negative - by a teenage boy so stoned I'm not sure he was certain I existed - I began to think New Zealand really had it sorted when it came to breastfeeding. What a progressive nation, I thought. Go us.
I'm not sure when everything changed. The age at which breastfeeding mysteriously becomes perverse, unnecessary and/or psychologically damaging varies wildly according to the critics. According to some, I transgressed as early as six weeks; others gave me grace periods of six months, nine months or a year before I should have cut Rowan off for her own good. Still others calculated by milestones - I should have stopped when she got teeth, learned to talk, learned to walk or started solids. One friend of mine even argued that breastfeeding beyond 18 months was "pretty weird" - on the unscientific, if loyal, grounds that his sister-in-law weaned her children at that age.
At any rate, by breastfeeding at two years and eight months - and pregnant to boot! - I'm definitely long past the cut-off, whenever it was. To be fair, I haven't received a huge amount of flak in real life. My close friends and family are supportive, and as we don't breastfeed in public any more, everyone else is blissfully unaware. It's online where the gloves really come off, and parents like me are accused of being everything from sexually deviant to neurotically unable to allow our children to grow up.
Such objections are notable for three things: Their appalling ethnocentricity, a serene disregard for scientific studies on the matter and an impressive all-inclusiveness. Full-term nursing, apparently, is bad no matter how you slice it. It's bad if the child suckles for comfort, because he needs to learn other ways of coping; and it's bad if the child suckles for nutrition, because he should be getting his calories elsewhere. It's bad if the mother doesn't enjoy it, because she's being a slave to her child, and it's bad if the mother does enjoy it, because she's probably "getting something sexual" out of the relationship. It's bad if the child is behind developmentally, because breastfeeding clearly caused the delays, and it's bad if the child is advanced, because he's clearly "too mature" to do something as infantile as breastfeeding. And don't even think about breastfeeding while pregnant or tandem-nursing, or you'll single-handedly usher in Armageddon.
On the other hand, I've had two midwives literally cheer when I told them I was breastfeeding a toddler; and it's recommended by no less hippie-dippy an entity as the World Health Organisation. Not to mention that dozens of societies have practised child-led weaning throughout history and have yet to implode in a mess of quasi-incestuous co-dependence.
So, while like most full-term nursers, I'm discreet about it for the sake of avoiding drama, I'm not ashamed. In fact, I consider breastfeeding Rowan until she's ready to wean one of my better parenting decisions. Why? Well, let's look at the science.
It's good for her
One of the stranger misconceptions I've come across in the breastfeeding debate is the idea that after a certain age, breast milk becomes immunologically and nutritionally worthless - no better for a toddler than milk made for baby cows or squeezed from soybeans. This is not the case - in fact, milk changes composition as a toddler grows so it can continue being the perfect drink.
According to an article by Kyla Steinkraus in the US magazine Mothering, a daily "serving" of 448ml of human milk provides a toddler with nearly all her daily requirement of vitamin B12, 76% of her folate, 36% of her calcium, 76% of her vitamin A and an impressive 43% of her protein.
Even for a child with a perfectly-balanced diet, that's a drink worth having. But breast milk becomes even more valuable when parents are concerned a child's diet is somehow lacking. A picky toddler who hates dairy can still get a good dollop of calcium from breast milk; a child who nibbles on crackers all day can ingest no-chewing-required protein; and as for the child who won't eat much of anything at all, breast milk is a "liquid lunch" packed with calories and nutrients.
What's more, breast milk boosts a toddler's immune system for as long as she nurses. Steinkraus writes, "Literally thousands of antiviral, antibacterial, and antiparasitic factors are found in human milk, protecting against hundreds of infections and diseases, including E. coli, pneumonia, strep throat, Salmonella, influenza, rotavirus, rubella, West Nile virus, mumps, measles, diabetes, meningitis and many childhood cancers such as leukaemia. These immunological factors remain whether the nursing child is three months or three years old."
Even more impressively, toddlers who nurse less often don't get short-changed - the immunological factors become concentrated in the breast milk, so even one or two feeds a day provides a valuable top-up. If your instincts ever led you to delay weaning until after the cold and flu season, you were right on - studies show that breastfed toddlers are healthier overall.
It's good for me
After two years and eight months of breastfeeding, I have reduced my risk of developing breast cancer by as much as 25%. I delayed the return of menstruation until 14 months postpartum, giving my body a break from the high levels of estrogen associated with ovulation, and helping my iron levels stay high. Lengthy lactation also means I am less likely to develop Type 2 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis and osteoporosis.
Am I "doing it for myself", as anti-breastfeeders sometimes claim? No, not primarily, but a greater likelihood of a healthy old age isn't something to be sneezed at either.
It's good for us
This is all very well, but the real hot-button issue with child-led weaning is its psychological effects. Critics argue that continuing to nurse past infancy will give a child a distorted view of sexuality and cause him to become clingy and dependent.
Because of the relative rareness of full-term nursing in Western society, few studies have been done which explore the psychological effects of breastfeeding beyond two years of age. One long-range study following 999 children from birth to 18 years associated longer breastfeeding duration with lower drop-out rates and students were rated more co-operative and better socially adjusted, even after the data were adjusted for maternal demographics. Another study found "statistically significant tendencies for conduct disorder scores to decline with increasing duration of breastfeeding".
Breastfeeding for several years has also failed to turn up any psychological aberrancies in traditional cultures. Indeed, these cultures are often noted for their strong family bonds. In Western societies, child-led weaning is perhaps most popular in attachment parenting (AP) circles. AP philosophy considers a strong attachment between mother and child to be a good thing, giving the child a secure base where his needs will be met in order to allow him to separate from the parent in his own time, without pressure. Research indicates that secure babies actually end up more independent than their peers, because they initiated the independence when they were physically and emotionally ready.
If you're wondering just when this occurs, there's no magic age. A minority of children are not emotionally dependent on the breast at all and self-wean as soon as alternative food sources are presented. Others take great comfort from the closeness of nursing for several years. Anthropologist Katherine Dettwyler makes a helpful statement that "in cultures where children are allowed to nurse 'as long as they want' they usually self-wean, with no arguments or emotional trauma, between three and four years of age". In other words, no, they won't still be doing it at college.
Drawing the line
The point of full-term nursing is not to martyr the mother to "four years or bust" - it is simply to change the question from "Why keep nursing?" to "Why wean?"
In some cases, the pros of nursing simply outweigh the cons - which may be as minor as the disapproval of the odd family member or a few more months of wearing button-down tops.
In other cases, circumstances make partial or complete weaning necessary. Very few women find they can't get pregnant again while nursing. Pregnancy can make nursing painful or dry up a mother's milk supply. Some medications make breastfeeding temporarily toxic; a mother might be sent to an overseas conference for a week; or she may simply find nursing a squirming toddler is causing resentment and negative feelings. In these cases, setting limits or even complete weaning may be the right choice. Diane Bengsen of The La Leche League's book How Weaning Happens has some excellent ideas for weaning a child while remaining respectful of his feelings.
In fact, How Weaning Happens has a lot of good information about full-term nursing, from creating a code word for nursing to avoid embarrassment in the supermarket, to reintroducing the breast after a short break from nursing. It leaves out one vital piece of advice, though: Stay out of internet discussions about extended breastfeeding. It's a jungle out there.
Sarah Tennant is a mother and freelance writer based in Hamilton.