“When they’re old enough to ask for it, they are too old for it”.
“You should wean them before they get old enough to pull up your shirt in public”.
“Teeth is nature’s way of telling you it’s time to stop breastfeeding”.
“Don’t you know there are no nutritional benefits past a year?”
These are just some of the comments many mothers who choose to breastfeed past the “standard” 6 months will hear in their journey. We live in a society that seems to deem extended breastfeeding as “weird” and “disgusting”, probably because of how sexualized breasts have become. If you breastfeed a toddler in public, you’re likely to get some dirty looks and rude comments. I’m sure most of you have seen that infamous Time cover which featured a nursing 4-year-old and remember the criticism it attracted.
I don’t blame anyone who finds breastfeeding a 4-year-old “unnatural” because I used to be one of them. Don’t get me wrong, I always wanted to breastfeed, but my goal was only 2 years because I’d heard there were no benefits past this age. Like most people, I was terribly misinformed. I didn’t know about the benefits of extended breastfeeding because there was no one to preach it to me. You always hear about the “benefits” of formula because it is an industry and there is money to be made. Breastmilk is free. The government and non-profit associations promote breastfeeding to the best they can, but they don’t have the budgets that formula companies have.
At the end of the day, the truth of the matter is that extended breastfeeding is in fact, totally natural and should be done. It is not something we should be ashamed of or have to hide. Let me tell you why.
The natural weaning age of humans
Have you ever thought about this: no other mammal except humans wean their young before their time. Do you see a dog switching their puppies to formula after a month? A cat trying to stop her kittens from latching on when they want to? No. A kangaroo switching her babies to possum milk? Great apes- our close cousins- typically nurse their young for 4-6 years. It is no coincidence that our permanent teeth only start coming around the time most children would have naturally weaned (they are called “milk teeth” for a reason!).
Infant formula was never intended to be used on such a wide scale as it is today. It was only invented a few decades ago for orphaned babies who would otherwise starve to death. In the past, you wouldn’t have been able to nurse for 2-3 months then make the choice to stop. Baby would just go hungry. If left to ourselves in our natural state without science or preconceived notions, research shows we’d all nurse our young till 2-7 years of age. In poorer, less-developed countries, extended nursing is normal and common. Breastmilk is milk after all and it’s a great source of food for babies AND young children. We make human milk for human babies. We were never meant to drink other mammals’ milks.
I have nothing against anyone who has to use infant formula because they can’t breastfeed for whatever reasons. Infant formula was, after all, invented as an emergency backup to prevent orphans from going hungry. If you truly are unable to breastfeed for physical or mental reasons, then of course it is the next best thing. What I’m saying is just don’t default to it just because it is “the norm” or your mother-in-law tells you you don’t have “enough milk” or worse, because you actually think it’s better than breastmilk (because it certainly isn’t- it is severely modified cows/goats milk peppered with trace amounts of vitamins and minerals and contains no live properties such as antibodies, hormones, growth factors etc.)
And, yes, I am aware that a lot of mothers work these days, but there is no reason why you cannot express milk at your workplace, unless it is truly hindering your mental health. There is a lot of education and online support out there these days for working breastfeeding mothers. It can be hard, but is entirely possible with the right support. And besides, by the time the child is about a year old and perhaps eating well, you can probably just nurse them before and after work and forget about expressing at work altogether.
Breastmilk changes to support a toddler
Unlike formula which stays the same forever, breastmilk actually changes with the needs of the child. Interestingly, after a year, the immunological factor as well as fat content in breastmilk increases, likely to support a toddler who is running around everywhere and catching all sorts of nasties. Through nursing, a child’s saliva will tell Mum’s body what antibodies are needed and she’ll make them and pass them back to the child. A child’s immune system doesn’t fully develop until they are about 6 years old. Until then, nursing helps ensure they recover fast from any sicknesses.
A lot of old folks seem to think that breastmilk “goes off” or becomes less nutritional after 6 months. This is not true. The reality is that after 6 months, babies need more to fuel their growing bodies and can’t live off breastmilk ALONE. This is why solids are introduced after this age. Other foods and drinks should complement breastmilk for the first year, not replace it. Then, after this, solids make up the bulk of a toddlers diet but breastmilk remains a great source of fat, protein, vitamins, and minerals. If you can give a toddler a glass of cows’ milk, why not breastmilk? Cows’ milk was designed for the needs of a calf, and human milk for humans. Breastmilk is full of living goodness in an easily digestible form. Nature designed us to breastfeed for years for the benefit of a child’s health and development. It is only because society has sexualized breasts so much that we feel uncomfortable at the thought of a walking, talking child hanging off their mothers’ breast. In reality though, it is very normal.
Also, please don’t listen to the old folks who tell you you shouldn’t breastfeed past 6 months because it will drain you and affect your health- it is ridiculous. Eat well and you’ll be fine. And even if you don’t eat well, your human milk is still better for baby than man-made milk made in a factory under no proper regulations.
Nursing is comfort
As a breastfeeding mother, I’ve also learned that breastfeeding is not only a source of nutrition but also of comfort. I guess this is only something you learn about once you have a child. It is easy and quick way to calm a stressed child and allow them to reconnect with Mum in unfamiliar environments. Toddlers get sick and hurt easily. Popping them on the boob is such a natural way of comforting them.
Some might say extended breastfeeding creates an unhealthy dependence on Mum but I don’t think this is the case at all. Why is it “unhealthy” for a child to seek comfort in their primary caretaker? How is breastfeeding as a source of comfort when they hurt themselves and are screaming bloody murder any different to giving cuddles and kisses? The breast is the original pacifier. It is, after all, what dummies are modeled after. Children will grow independent in their own time. There is no reason to force them before their time. They will walk when they are ready. They will sleep through the night when they are ready. And they will wean when they are ready. Some may be ready to stop nursing at 2, but others may need a little longer. My belief is that if you let them grow up in their own time, they will turn out independent, confident, secure, and well-adjusted. Of course, I will get back to you on that when my children are older, but this is what I hear from other parents who practice this style of parenting.
People also seem horrified at the thought of a child being old enough to “remember breastfeeding” or be aware of it. You have to realise, though, that while adults perceive breasts as being sexual, breasts to a breastfeeding child is just a source of love and comfort. To them, it is a normal and natural part of the female body and they will actually grow up with a very healthy and positive image of breasts and breastfeeding. I think it’s actually fantastic if a child does remember breastfeeding, or grows up seeing a younger sibling being breastfed, because then they learn it’s an extremely normal act and that breasts are meant for feeding and nourishing. I know some people think that breastfeeding toddlers will create perverted children obsessed with boobs or something, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Children are not naturally perverted. They learn from adults. If you teach them that boobs are something to be ashamed about, then they will learn that. To me, breastfeeding openly around children gives them healthy attitudes towards breasts and the body in general, which is the way it should be.
And for the record, most mothers of children who wean as late as 4-6 years report that their children actually do not end up remembering the actual act of breastfeeding at all because it is such a normal, everyday thing to them. They will remember things like birthday parties, but not something they have been doing everyday for years.
For the benefit of the child
It always makes me laugh when people say women who nurse toddlers do it “for themselves” and not the child. As if women like having a child on their boob all the time. You cannot force a child to latch and breastfeed. The child has to actively draw milk out of the breast, it does not automatically flow out. Anyone who has ever tried to wean a baby can tell you how hard it was.
I can guarantee you that most mothers wish they weren’t a slave to their boobs. But we do it because it greatly benefits the child’s physical and mental health. I am letting Miss A self-wean. That means that she will decide when she is ready to stop. I have no intention of taking away something that means so much to her before she is ready to let go herself. It would be like taking away her favorite soft toy. I am well aware that I am privileged enough to be able to continue breastfeeding, so I will run with it. At 15 months, Miss A is starting to eat well and has naturally been cutting down on feeds herself, but she still clearly loves her milk time. In her own time, she will realise the world does not revolve around Mummy, and be off doing her own thing. But until then, I will continue providing what she needs.
Extended breastfeeding is something I am passionate about. I enjoy talking to people about it and educating them about how normal it is, but I’m no nazi. I certainly do not think any differently of people who use formula or who wean early. I know everyone’s situation is different. I just enjoy providing information. I know there are always going to be people who think extended breastfeeding is gross and argue against it, and that’s okay. I did not write this to change everyone’s minds, but just to encourage that one mother out there who wants to continue breastfeeding but feels like everyone against her…To this mother, it is entirely normal and you’re doing a great thing.