We all know that breast milk is the best thing for babies. Whether or not we truly deep-down believe that can be seen by how quick we are to choose formula over breast-milk or how hard we try to nurse. But even moms who elect to go straight to the bottle "know" that it isn't quite as good as breast milk, though thanks to research we are able to give babies a close second (especially if we use organic products or make our own formulas based on real milks). That said, please don't feel guilt or judgment coming at you as you read if you didn't breast feed or didn't keep it up as long as you wish, especially if you were literally unable to do so. This is my thinking in "ideal world-land." Ok, so, in the US & Canada, it's a "given" that breast-feeding is great. Most moms try to do it at least 6 weeks, and even working moms usually try to keep it up (thanks to another handy invention; the pump!) for 6 months. The official World Health Organization recommendation is:
"Colostrum, the yellowish, sticky breast milk produced at the end of pregnancy, is recommended by WHO as the perfect food for the newborn, and feeding should be initiated within the first hour after birth. Exclusive breastfeeding is recommended up to 6 months of age, with continued breastfeeding along with appropriate complementary foods up to two years of age or beyond."I think most American moms feel like if they've nursed to one year of age, they're champs, and it's time to move on to cow's milk. While both are true (especially the being champs part), why do we feel like one year is THE end-mark for weaning? My pediatrician's office asked me matter-of-factly at Éowyn's one-year check up how weaning was going, and told me I could start replacing one feeding per week with a sippy cup of whole milk. When I told them, yes, I had introduced whole cow's milk but that I hadn't decreased nursing yet, the nurse blinked at me in shock, then assured me that yes, that was totally fine. Nursing past one year old just isn't much done around here.
Why, though? The newest article "Breastfeeding and the Use of Human Milk" from the AAP (an organization that is far from non-interventionist) contains these statements:
- Increased duration of breastfeeding confers significant health and developmental benefits for the child and the mother, especially in delaying return of fertility (thereby promoting optimal intervals between births).
- There is no upper limit to the duration of breastfeeding and no evidence of psychologic or developmental harm from breastfeeding into the third year of life or longer.
I've heard many people say "as soon as they can ask for it, I think they're too old for it." Éowyn learned to sign "milk" VERY early, around 8 months or so. Of course, she still couldn't walk or chew much food, or even drink whole milk yet-- probably not a good move to base weaning on the ability to ask for milk. I think our culture is so much more comfortable in seeing breasts as sexually attractive objects than as what they are just as much intended to be: functional suppliers of milk for our children. Maybe that's why we feel uncomfortable with children seeing and feeding from them once they are cognitively aware-- we feel like that's weird, maybe even a bit sick. Please know that it ISN'T. One of woman's main roles is a nurturer, literally and figuratively. There's a reason Adam named his wife "Eve, because she was the mother of all the living." ("Eve" sounds like the Hebrew for life-giver and resembles the word for living).
I do have one thought, though. I can't say how many times I've been thankful for breast-feeding through this winter. Example: Éowyn had a miserable January, as a cold settled in her sinuses, then both ears, and probably was inflaming her throat too. Add four incoming molars and an itchy, painful allergic reaction to penicillin, and neither of us was getting much sleep. Her food intake dwindled to one or two bites per meal at most. Instead, she asked to nurse a lot, even sleeping by me for one precious night, nursing herself into a merciful deep sleep (the first either of us got in a week). I took her to the doctor's three times in as many weeks, and was absolutely shocked when instead of showing the wasting most toddlers do during illnesses, she'd gained a pound through her ordeal! The nurse's explanation; "breast-milk is very caloric." I can't imagine what I would have done had I not been still nursing. Nothing else soothed her ears and throat, and cow's milk isn't the best during upper-respiratory infections, so I guess I'd have been pushing water and juice and watching her use all her stored fat up to fight off infection.
I've been thinking; the winter just seems like a bad time to wean. It's cold; breast-milk is warm, and snuggles are welcome. It's sickness-season, especially for exploring toddlers and their tired mamas; breast-milk provides immunities, is often the only thing a sick child wants to eat (especially if ears & throats are sore) and is a fuss-free snack (almost a meal!) when it's Mom who isn't feeling so hot. The summer, by contrast, seems like a much more natural time to wean: it's hot out, children want cool drinks rather than warm milk, and no one wants more body heat. I propose the idea of seasonal weaning. What if we got in our heads to nurse through the winter instead of "to one year?" I'm hoping that Éowyn will take the lead in weaning once it gets warmer, when there are interesting things to do outside and all around! (So far, we've cut out all night feedings and her post-nap afternoon "snack," but that's been hard enough. This child loves her "miwc.")
One more thought on the convenience of nursing into toddler-hood: The other day we were out running errands and, as so often happens, we got delayed and held up past the little one's dinner time. Being the great mom that I am, I had no snacks with me in the store... except, oh wait... we found a quiet discreet corner, and five minutes later Eowyn was satisfied. No prep, no clean up, no mess. Baby happy, Mommy happy. Everybody happy!
One last quote from Katherine A. Dettwyler, a woman whose research is particularly on this subject (from the article linked to above):
In terms of the benefits of extended breastfeeding, there have been a number of studies comparing breastfed and bottlefed babies in terms of the frequency of various diseases, and also IQ achievement. In every case, the breastfed babies had lower risk of disease and higher IQs than the bottle-fed babies. In those studies that divided breastfed babies into categories based on length of breastfeeding, the babies breastfed the longest did better in terms of both lower disease and higher IQ. [...] This has been shown for gastrointestinal illness, upper respiratory illness, multiple sclerosis, diabetes, heart disease, and on and on and on. Likewise, the babies nursed the longest scored the highest on the IQ tests. [...] Presumably, the benefits continue to accrue, as your body doesn't *know* that the baby has bad a birth day and suddenly start producing nutritionally and immunologically worthless milk.