- Boobs are for men.
- Nursing is weird.
Every other permutation – extended nursing makes you a child molester! You’re doing this for your own benefit! You’re trying to keep your child a perpetual infant! – comes from these two premises. Throw in some ideas about how we have to foster independence in children as soon as possible, usually by cry-it-out, suck-it-up, spare-the-rod-spoil-the-child schools of thought, and you’ve got a recipe for some serious nastiness.
So don’t bother reading them. Seriously.
But even moving past the crazy, there’s still a lot of misconceptions about what extended breastfeeding means and what it looks like. We don’t see toddlers nurse in public. We don’t talk about nursing a three-year-old to sleep. When we think of breastfeedng a four-year-old, we imagine the infamous Are You Mom Enough? Time Magazine cover. But for many reasons – and many mothers – that’s far from reality. “Extended nursing” is actually a lot more boring than the tabloid-ish sensationalism lets on.
“Extended nursing” is actually a misnomer.
As Barbara Higham, managing editor of La Leche League’s Breastfeeding Today schooled me, the correct term is “full-term breastfeeding.” “I don’t like the term ‘extended’ breastfeeding,” she says, “because really it is just sustaining something that is perfectly normal. ‘Extended’ makes it sound unnecessarily prolonged when in fact natural weaning is just trusting children to stop when they are ready, which they all do of their own accord.”
Basically, you can trust your kid to wean well before his SAT prep class. “Extended” breastfeeding isn’t weird – it’s normal. In fact, anthropologist Katherine Dettwyler estimates “the minimum predicted age for human weaning” at 2.8 years, with a maximum of 7.0 years. Makes nursing your four-year-old totally unremarkable, doesn’t it?
A toddler or preschooler doesn’t nurse like a newborn.
When we imagine nursing, we think of the newborn every-two-hours-or-more schedule. What we don’t see? Nursing once in the morning. Nursing for naps. Nursing for sleep. Once your kid passes two years, you’ve probably stopped whipping your boob out in public. Because you aren’t nursing for nutrition only, you can set some boundaries.
And full-term nursing pairs have boundaries.
The WHO recommends nursing for two years, and then “as long as mother and child desire.” That mututality is key, because, face it: no one really loves to pull her shirt up in public. If I let my three-year-old nurse whenever he wanted, I’d be attached to him for half the damn day. He has to have boundaries. For us, that means he nurses once in the morning and maybe once in the afternoon. I say “no” a hell of a lot more than I say “yes.” He also isn’t allowed to pinch my skin, roll around, or pat my breast while he nurses (all normal nursing behavior) because I don’t like it. This teaches him about physical consent, which is super important in today’s world.
Mamas don’t choose to full-term breastfeed because they like it. It’s often frankly a pain in the boob.
They have lots of reasons, but it’s certainly not for cheap thrills. Most women say it’s rather uncomfortable, in fact, to nurse a toddler. They do annoying things like dig their chins into you, or forget to flange their lips properly. Some lose the wave-like sucking motion infants instinctually use. This doesn’t mean they’re ready to wean, but it does mean it doesn’t feel the same to nurse a toddler as it does a younger infant.
Plus, they whine for it, some more than others. When they whine, you have to say no. Then they throw a tantrum. This happens at least once a day in my house.
Full-term nursing has psychological benefits.
Attachment theory suggests that meeting a child’s needs – often allowing dependence – encourages future independence. Secure attachment in childhood, achieved partially by allowing that dependence, predicts secure attachment in adulthood. For some children, full-term nursing encourages and aids that attachment – in our case, particularly after an unexpected sibling.
It also stop tantrums. And everyone want a magic wand to stop tantrums.
It also has physiological benefits – for both mother and child.
Immunological benefits of breastmilk don’t magically end at age one. Your child continues to get immune-boosting help as long as he continues to nurse. There is some evidence it may help his gut as well – a reason I’ve continued to nurse well into toddler years.
And the longer a woman breastfeeds, the healthier she is, with a lower risk of rheumatoid arthritis, breast cancer, ovarian cancer, high blood pressure, heart disease, and diabetes. The last three run in my family, so I’ll take all the help I can get.
You know someone who practices full-term breastfeeding.
Just because you don’t see a mama nurse her three-year-old doesn’t mean she isn’t doing it. In fact, many mothers nurse their children past the expected one-year mark. While there are serious problems with determining how many, ask around. Especially if you’re a hippie parent, you know someone who nursed past the age of one, two, or even three. You’ll find many toddler mamas nursing to sleep. Because of societal stigma, they usually don’t broadcast it.
It doesn’t produce weirdos.
I had two friends who nursed past the age of four. Both are stable individuals who manage to integrate into normal society and even raise children without wearing prairie skirts, molesting kittens, or evidencing blatant sociopathy. One remembers nursing quite well, and is grateful to be able to nurse her own children. She doesn’t think it’s gross or strange, either.
So if you practice extended nursing, you aren’t alone. Rest assured you’re making a choice you feel is best for your family and your child.
And for Pete’s sake, don’t read the damn comments.
Have you practiced full-term breastfeeding? Did you decide it wasn’t for you? Share your story!
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