Monday, July 11, 2011

Two years!

It was two years ago that I first began nursing my daughter.

Last month my little sweetie turned two years old. Yes, she is now two years old and we are still breastfeeding. A lot. She really likes to nurse.

Now, to many of the people I hang out with, this is totally normal. However, I realize that for most of the people in the US this may seem weird. My minimum breastfeeding goal has always been two years, though I fell a few months short with both of my boys. Why at least two years? Why would you still be breastfeeding a toddler? Can’t she have “regular” milk now? Doesn’t she have a full set of teeth and eat solid food?

Most people are simply unaware of the huge list of benefits of continuing to breastfeed full term. One of my favorite collection of research based information on this is at Breastfeeding Past Infancy: Fact Sheet

While it may seem “weird” to many in our culture, scientific research by Katherine A. Dettwyler, PhD shows that 2.5 to 7.0 years of nursing is what our children have been designed to expect (Dettwyler 1995).
In short:
Weird = Some person’s opinion
Normal = Science
So, if science says it is normal to be nursing a two year old, then why is it so often considered "weird"? Dr. Karan Epstein-Gilboa points out in her book, Interaction and Relationships in Breastfeeding Families, "In western environments, non-nursing or, at most, short term nursing are the norm. Behaviors veering from the normal status are therefore considered abnormal."

Some people may read this and think about how much breastfeeding is promoted as "best" and be mislead to think that we live in a breastfeeding culture. When you consider the fact that in the US approximately 11% of babies are still nursing at 12 months old, knowing that the American Academy of Pediatrics suggests baby is nursed a MINIMUM of 12 months, you can see that we are a culture in which bottle feeding and short term breastfeeding are the norm. The vast majority of children in the US are not nursing on their first birthday. Not normal is abnormal by default.

Until recently, nursing into toddler/preschool ages was often labeled "Extended Breastfeeding". The reality is that there is nothing "extended" about it. It is the physiological norm for human children. Breastfeeding beyond infancy is not extended, simply "full term". Many babies are born before 40 weeks gestation. Do we consider a baby who stayed in utero until 40 weeks "extended gestation"? No, it is normal. It is full term. Same thing with breastfeeding a toddler.

Full term breastfeeding has been in the mainstream media lately with Mayim Bialik being vocal about breastfeeding her toddlers, and child-led weaning. You can find may articles by her and interviews with her with titles like: I Breastfeed My Toddler. Got A Problem With It?

Don't even get me started on people who claim that a mother who nurses beyond infancy does it to meet her own needs, not the needs of the child.

Why at least two years?

There are literally dozens of reasons. Here are just a couple:
  • The American Academy of Family Physicians recommends that breastfeeding continue throughout the first year of life and that "As recommended by the WHO, breastfeeding should ideally continue beyond infancy, but this is not the cultural norm in the United States and requires ongoing support and encouragement. It has been estimated that a natural weaning age for humans is between two and seven years. Family physicians should be knowledgeable regarding the ongoing benefits to the child of extended breastfeeding, including continued immune protection, better social adjustment, and having a sustainable food source in times of emergency. The longer women breastfeed, the greater the decrease in their risk of breast cancer." They also note that "If the child is younger than two years of age, the child is at increased risk of illness if weaned." (AAFP 2008)
  • Nursing toddlers between the ages of 16 and 30 months have been found to have fewer illnesses and illnesses of shorter duration than their non-nursing peers (Gulick 1986).
  • "Breast milk continues to provide substantial amounts of key nutrients well beyond the first year of life, especially protein, fat, and most vitamins."
    -- Dewey 2001

Can’t she have “regular” milk now?

I think it is a funny thing in our culture that “regular milk”, or cows milk, is considered such an important part of our diet. There is an entire nutrition category based on a SINGLE food source: cows milk. Every other “group” has multiple sources of nutrition: Grains (rice, wheat, oats, corn etc.), proteins (meat, fish, eggs, legumes etc.), vegetable, fruits, you get the idea. The reality is that although the Diary Council would like you to think otherwise, NO ONE needs to consume any dairy products to be healthy (and many of us would probably be much healthier without them!). Some good info at Cows Milk? and Is Cow's Milk Necessary For Toddlers?

Yes, she can and does drink cows milk, as that is a food that our family keeps in the house. But, the best nutrition she gets is from species-specific milk made by her mama.

Doesn’t she have a full set of teeth and eat solid food?

Yes. She actually got all of her teeth rather early. She is a great eater and powers down lots of food. She loves fruit and chicken enchiladas.

Baby teeth are also sometimes referred to as: "milk teeth". If you look at it, the common time for kids to start losing their “milk teeth” around 5-7 years, coincides with the later age of natural weaning.

Isn't she nursing just for comfort?

Sometimes, yes. I think it is perfectly acceptable to comfort my child, and breastfeeding is sometimes the way to do it. Remember, it is not only about the milk.

I’m glad we are still nursing. I was really glad last weekend when we ended up in the ER after a fall. She didn’t need any pain meds, she was happy and comfortable sitting on my lap and nursing when she wanted.

Last week when we had a 4 hour layover at 6am in a strange airport, it was great to be able to nurse her and watch her relax and fall fast asleep.

Some people may be wondering how long we will continue to nurse. Ainsley is pretty much the boss on that one. She will let me know when she no longer needs it.

Want to read more about full term breastfeeding?

Six Misconceptions About 'Extended' Breastfeeding

Is breastfeeding a six year old ok? Er where do you live?

Breastfeeding Beyond Infancy: Radio Documentary

Breastfeeding My Jump-Roping Hula Hooper

To Wean or Not to Wean: Who Says When Is Enough