OMG WE MADE IT!
My daughter turned one year old last month. ONE WHOLE YEAR! She is no longer considered an “infant” by traditional standards, and has graduated onto “Toddlerhood”. We have survived what parents across the world claim to be the hardest year of parenting and lived to tell about it (however, as I am now entering the toddler years, I am not so convinced- hellopublic tantrums). Her newborn self seems almost like a figment of my imagination now; a mere millisecond within hours, that it’s hard for me to believe she was ever that fragile and helpless creature (or that I was ever that scared new mom). I can only describe this past year as being lost at sea, exhaustively treading water to stay afloat, all while being completely captivated by the beautiful sunset surrounding me. I reflect on this past year with awe, wonder, fear, and excitement. I am in awe that I find myself blessed to have this exquisite creation in my midst, I am in wonder of how quickly she has transformed into a thinking, feeling, complex being. I am fearful of how fast the time seems to be going but also excited to see what our future holds as a family (like um…. Christmas!)
Her first birthday also meant that I met my original goal of exclusively breastfeeding for one year (Woo Hoo!) I am proud to be apart of the few 9.1% of mothers who make it to this milestone in the U.S. However, it would be unfair for me to say I made it this far on my own. The truth is I couldn’t have done it without the support of the people around me. I am grateful for my company and coworkers for being supportive when I had to organize my work around pumping 3+ times a day, and giving me a comfortable and private area to do so. I am grateful for my husband, friends, and the caretakers of my daughter over the last year for understanding my goals as a breastfeeding mother and helping me meet them. I am eternally indebted to these people, and I understand that I am one of the lucky ones to have this support.
But now what? I feel like I should be jumping for joy and celebrating the fact that I have overcome the societal challenges to make it this far, but I find I have a new issue. It seems there’s already societal pressure to wean! Didn’t I just become comfortable nursing in public?
To give some background, the one year mark is the typical “socially acceptable” breastfeeding weaning age in the U.S., or the age in which cow’s milk is given in place of formula and bottles are “done away with”. It is the age in which “babies” are expected to be independent “toddlers”, and so on. However, I do not feel this monumental shift that is supposed to occur according to society when “infants” turn one. My “toddler” is still my “baby” to me. And I want to know, when did this age become the one-size-fits all milestone of independence? All because she eats a little solid food and belligerently speaks a few syllables? My daughter still nurses around the clock, still only wants to fall asleep and stay asleep next to me and this continues to feel completely natural to me. Why would I “fix” a problem that does not exist? My daughter is not ready to wean (like, REALLY, not ready) and I’m not ready to wean either. There is little that nursing won’t cure. It is a magical sleep remedy that is capable of calming the crankiest toddler, a potent elixir that cures any bump or bruise, the liquid courage for an anxious little person in a new surrounding, and the most natural form of “happy pills” a mother can get (in the form of oxytocin, of course).
Now tell me again, why am I supposed to stop using this God-given miracle tool?
I’ve tried to find out why and when mainstream parenting started to dictate that the bottle or breast must be done away with at the age of one and where the notion that breastfeeding past one is “weird” or developmentally damaging came from. I have to say, I found out some fascinating stuff on this hunt, for instance male Chinese royalty were actually nursed until the age of twelve! because they believed it would lead to a healthier heir. Though not related to weaning, but I thought worth mentioning was for a time, “wet nurses” (a term used for a woman who nurses a child that is not her biological offspring) were the norm for the wealthy (the poor would sometimes smother or abandon their own babies to secure such a lucrative position) and the wet-nurse trend evolved into newborns being “farmed out” to the homes of their wet nurses until they were weaned (this is theorized to be where “Detached parenting” philosophy stemmed from- and this actually caused a rise in infant mortality). But in terms of weaning, all I really came up with was historical shifting of opinion on infant feeding. The only concrete reason I could find where this age came from had to do with pediatric recommendations based on dental and jaw development concerns and this came after the invention of the feeding bottle.
But Won’t That Cause Braces?!
The short answer is breastfeeding will not, but bottles might (and this is actually up for debate). The jaw mechanism used for the breast is very different from the mechanism used for an artificial nipple such as a pacifier, bottle, or thumb even. Actually, babies exclusively breastfed for six months were 72% less likely to have crooked teeth. These babies were also seen to be less likely to develop open bites, cross-bites and overbites than babies who breastfed for less than six months or not at all.1 “Bottle Rot” is a different story and a valid concern. “Bottle rot” occurs when a baby is put to sleep with a bottle containing milk or any liquid containing sugar. If the bottle slips out of the baby’s mouth after they have fallen asleep it could continue to drip sugary milk onto the baby’s teeth, and thus cause cavities. This just simply could not happen with the breast. First of all, ask a nursing mother how it feels when the baby slips off the nipple (let’s just say it hurts), and the breast does not leak milk unless it’s being stimulated by the baby or a breast pump (except maybe in the beginning when your baby has no teeth).
I have a theory… Just go with me here. Maybe the reason children are seen sucking their thumbs until the age of four or five is because they still crave the natural comfort sucking provides. Just maybe children wouldn’t feel the urge to suck their thumbs if they were allowed to continue to nurse until a more natural age for weaning. Just a thought….
Then there’s the “creep” factor…
A close friend who has not yet nursed a baby of her own, said something to me about an acquaintance still nursing her toddler aged son “….But what if he has memories of that?!?!” She was concerned that still nursing at this age could be somehow damaging to the boy later in life. So I asked her this question that I want to ask all of you, “If you were on an African safari and came across an indigenous tribe where a mother was nursing her toddler, would you still find it grotesque and somehow perverted?” (Okay, maybe I said gross…) And she thought about it… and agreed that she probably wouldn’t. So WHY do WE find nursing a child past the age of one so inappropriate?! Because we don’t see it. If we saw it, we would realize that there is absolutely. nothing. weird. about a loving and nurturing act (past puberty, of course, weird, but let’s not confuse toddlers with adults). IF the toddler does go on to remember nursing, which he probably won’t.. but if he did… chances are his memories would be a fond one of his mother. What I think people do not understand is that when you become a nursing mother… the sexualization of your breasts kind of goes out the window… or at least changes your perspective a bit during this time. They become an instrument of motherhood, an important, useful tool to soothe, comfort, and nourish a child. And as far as the child goes, I resent that our society taints their innocence.
Let us look at nature shall we…
- In societies where there is no social stigma surrounding breastfeeding, and children are allowed to nurse “as long as they want,” they usually self-wean, with no arguments or emotional trauma, between 3 and 4 years of age.
- Larger mammals nurse their offspring until they have quadrupled their birth weight. In humans, quadrupling of birth weight occurs between 2.5 and 3.5 years, usually.
- One study of primates showed that the offspring were weaned when they had reached about one-third of their adult weight or when their permanent molars erupted and their milk teeth were lost. This happens in humans at about 5 to 7 years.
- A comparison of weaning age and sexual maturity in non-human primates suggests a weaning age of 6 to 7 for humans (about halfway to reproductive maturity).
According to this research, the Ph.D. predicted the age of natural weaning in humans to be anywhere from 2.5 years to a maximum of 7 years.2
Now, even I – Lover of all things Breastfeeding- am intimidated by the number seven. I will admit, seven does fall way outside of my comfort zone. But I’m trying to put it in perspective of how atypically early the age of 12 months is to wean a child from the breast.
So am I going to have a teenager in my lap asking for breastmilk?
Well, despite the aforementioned, I am not a complete believer in “self-weaning” by the child. I do think weaning by the mother is a natural occurrence. Other mammals wean. If you have any acquaintances that have bred dogs, they will tell you that the bitch will start to wean her puppies at around eight weeks or so. From what I can gather, across time our weaning age stayed between the ages of two to four on average (The bible talks of Moses being nursed until two, the Qur’an actually recommends to nurse children until 30 months). However, I do not believe weaning needs to be this great traumatic event for the child. I read something that made a lot of sense. A mother made the analogy that she didn’t automatically take the boppy pillow away from her baby at 6 months because that’s when he should be sitting up. She doesn’t remember when exactly she stopped using the boppy pillow because it happened gradually without her really noticing. Why should weaning be any different? I believe it should occur naturally and gradually determined by how the mother feels, what her intuition tells her, and how independent or ready her child is (not to mention abrupt weaning can cause mastitis, plugged ducts, and even depression for the mother!). A nursing relationship between a mother and child is an intimate one; sacred really, and to assume we are privy to any of the feelings involved is presumptuous. But what I think should be left out of the equation when deciding to wean is societal pressure based off of misconceptions and misinformation (including by your pediatrician). Call me crazy but I don’t think we’re blessed with children to feel stress and anxiety and to check things off of a list, I think we’re blessed with children to feel joy and enrichment. Imagine not having to FORCE- anything! And trusting nature and our children to lead us in the right direction.
I will warn you, if you travel down this path, nursing a toddler does come with new challenges: pulling, scraping, groping, smacking, the occasional bite; the works. Some days I swear she only likes me because of my boobs (it’s like being 16 all over again). Be prepared. Use this time to teach boundaries and respect but also cherish all the moments, because one day your nursing relationship will be over. I think as with anything else, I’m going to let nature takes its course and follow my instincts. I can’t say exactly when I’ll wean… in my mind the age is two, but if I start to feel the urge to wean earlier, I’ll start the process sooner… or if I make it to two and we’re both still not ready, I’ll continue. I also know that I have a battle ahead of me; I am not so naive to believe it will be an easy journey into extended breastfeeding. It takes one secure person to not let the mass majority of opinion affect their judgment. But I do know that there are TONS-MILLIONS actually! of women out there who also believe in the benefits of extended breastfeeding (the physical benefits are plentiful as well), and I will not be alone. I also hope by being courageous enough to challenge the status quo I’m encouraging mothers to do the same and wean when they want to rather than follow an arbitrary rule set for them. And as always, I feel I need to post a disclaimer to say that just because I am a proponent of one thing, does not mean I am shaming the other. What I stand for is informed choice, and mothers following their guts rather than guidelines.
The other day I was watching a movie while my little one was nursing to sleep on my chest. In the movie, a grown woman crawls into bed with her mother after losing her father, seeking an old familiar comfort that only a mother can give. I looked down and it hit me that my daughter will be grown one day. I thought to myself, when was the last time I crawled into bed with my mother? I couldn’t remember. As I caressed my tiny little girls wispy baby hair, and rubbed her back which was no bigger than my palm, I stored this memory away to revisit on a day when I wouldn’t be able to remember the last time my daughter crawled into bed with me. I am in no rush for these moments to end, for they are brief, but nothing short of beautiful.
“If they are hungry, mothers, feed them, without thinking twice. Because they are the most important people here.” – Pope Francis
Varying perspective? Differing opinion? Debate is powerful! Leave a comment!