November 8, 2011

To wean or not to wean?

If you had asked me a few years ago if I expected to be nursing an almost-2-year-old at some point, I’m sure the answer would have been no. In fact, I probably would have had the typical “that’s just weird” reaction. When I was pregnant with Zippy I knew I wanted to breastfeed, but I didn’t really think past the image of nursing a tiny baby to things like how long I would nurse. Zippy weaned himself at 14 months and I expected Bee would do about the same. A few months back, The Leaky B@@b asked moms who were nursing toddlers what surprised them most – the majority said they just never expected they would nurse so long. It seems it isn’t something most of us anticipate or plan on doing. It just kind of…happens.

 
So here I am, nursing a toddler who literally attempts hand-stands in my lap while nursing. I’ve been happy to nurse Bee this long, after working through some ambivalence and confusion a few months ago about whether I was comfortable with him treating me like a snack bar or I needed to set some limits on his nursing.  (The snack bar won out.) I know that we won’t be having more babies, and so I realize there is a part of me that wants to hang on to this beautiful experience as long as I can. Once he weans, it is all over, and I know I’ll be sad when that bittersweet day comes.

But, over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been surprised to feel the occasional urge to be done. It is probably related to the fact that Bee recently traded his three 5-minute feeds for half-hour nursing marathons multiple times a day. Our lives are busier now and since we had already moved past the intense phases of nursing (or so I thought), it is hard now to go back. I’m sure it is just another phase, but it is hard not to get antsy after being stuck on the couch for 20 minutes while Bee tries to watch cartoons and nurse at the same time (I could be making dinner right now!!!), or to feel a bit frustrated when he insists on nursing for a solid 30 minutes at 5 am, instead of nursing for a few minutes and happily letting me tuck him back in his crib (I could be sleeping right now!!!).

I’m past the point of feeling self-conscious when I tell people I’m still nursing. Well, mostly past the point of self-conscious. I know it isn’t the norm in our culture to nurse this long, although the things I’ve learned over the past few months have led me to think it is really unfortunate that there is such a stigma attached to nursing past infancy. Sure, formula-fed babies generally transition to cow’s milk around a year. And groups like the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend nursing until at least a year. But somehow these recommendations have resulted in the belief that nursing babies are supposed to stop at a year. In fact, the recommendation of groups like the AAP is that babies should continue to nurse as long as it is mutually desired by mother and child – there is no recommended “end point” given.  This is something I’ve found myself needing to point out a lot these past few months – to my husband, to family, to neighbors and friends – when they suggest maybe it’s time to wrap this thing up or joke that they’ll stage an intervention if I go “too long.”

I try not to be shy anymore about the fact I’m still nursing Bee. I’ve realized how few opportunities we have to see or hear about moms nursing past infancy. It’s almost like a “hidden world” – most people think extended nursing is rare, which statistically speaking it is, and then there is the belief that moms who do nurse their toddlers are either patchouli-scented hippie mommas, abnormally enmeshed with their kids, or just plain weird.  In reality, there are plenty of perfume-wearing, emotionally healthy, perfectly normal moms who are nursing their toddlers. They just tend to do it at home and keep pretty quiet about it, unless they know it is “safe to tell.” We sure as heck don’t see it on tv or in the magazines. Maybe if it was more visible it wouldn’t seem so unusual. This is one reason I will acquiesce when Bee is begging to nurse at his brother’s soccer game. Do I feel a little self-conscious? Yep. I can’t help it. But I do think it is important to do it. The more people see older toddlers being nursed, maybe the less “weird” it will seem. And maybe seeing a soccer mom who doesn’t smell like patchouli nurse her toddler will help break the stereotype a bit. (No offense intended to those who wear patchouli – I’m just making the point that moms who nurse older kids come in all shapes, sizes, and scents, and don’t fit some preconceived stereotype.)

Here are five things I have learned about nursing and toddlers that have really helped me feel more comfortable with the whole thing. I also like to call this list, “Things that make you go ‘Hmmm’”:
  1.  Research has shown that the breast milk of a mom nursing a toddler is not the same as the breast milk of a mom nursing a newborn. The chemistry of breast milk continues to change so that it matches the nutritional needs of older children (toddlers, preschoolers).  It provides much of the energy content, fat, protein, and vitamins that toddlers need. (And as an extra tidbit, did you know that the make-up of breast milk for boys differs from breast milk for girls? A-mazing how our bodies work!)
  2. We all know that breastfeeding lower’s a woman’s risk of many types of cancer, as well as osteoporosis and rheumatoid arthritis. Breastfeeding past infancy continues to lower a woman’s risk, at least for breast cancer. (One reason is that breastfeeding suppresses “womanly hormones” that play a role in the development of breast cancer – the longer one breastfeeds, the longer these hormones are kept at low levels.) 
  3.  From an anthropological perspective, it appears that our culture’s emphasis on weaning in infancy (or around a year) is based on self-imposed societal norms and not on what is actually a “natural” age of weaning from a biological perspective. (Hence the idea that breastfeeding into toddlerhood is “unnatural” is actually opposite of what science suggests.)  Anthropologist Katherine Dettwyler, Ph.D., gives a fascinating overview of her research and concludes that “The minimum predicted age for a natural age of weaning in humans is 2.5 years, with a maximum of 7.0 years.” 
  4. Toddlers nurse differently from infants. They like to “snack;” they like to be able to ask for it (because they can!); they like to display their stellar acrobatic skills while nursing. These things are perfectly normal from a developmental perspective. This post by The Leaky B@@b, besides being absolutely hilarious, really helped me out a few months back when I was struggling with Bee’s sudden desire to nurse every few minutes. (Everything I had learned about breastfeeding was oriented toward nursing a baby – I had no idea how different nursing a toddler is!) 
  5. Children who breastfeed past a year experience a number of benefits. As stated by the American Academy of Family Physicians in their Policy Statement, “Breastfeeding beyond the first year offers considerable benefits to both mother and child.” These benefits include continued immune protection, decreased risk of illness, and even higher IQ scores (compared to kids who wean earlier).
So, lots of reasons to keep nursing! Still, those fleeting moments of “I’m-ready-to-be-done” have been occurring recently. My hope is that Bee will wean himself, like Zippy did. But given his response to my attempts this week to curb his nursing, I don’t think he is going to self-initiate any time soon. During the day I might offer him a sippy cup of milk or tell him he needs to wait a little bit, which sometimes works but just as often results in a very dramatic display of distress. Picture an adorable little boy clinging to my legs while sobbing “Mommy, nuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuss!” How would I wean this child right now, even if I wanted to? I’m no sucker and I have no problem denying my children something they really shouldn’t have. But right now telling Bee he can’t nurse feels like taking a toddler’s favorite blankie – the love-worn one that he has slept with and carried everywhere for 2 years, the one that provides him an unparalleled sense of security and comfort – and throwing it in the trash for no good reason. “Sorry, buddy. Blankie is gone. Get over it, kiddo.” Nope, I can’t do that just yet. Bee might be big in size, but he is still a baby at heart. 

So, I guess writing this post I’ve answered my own question. We won’t be weaning quite yet. But I will keep hoping that Bee decides he’s ready to give up the marathon and goes back to sprint-nursing soon! 

For some other great info on the benefits of extended nursing, check out Kelly Mom’s Breastfeeding Past Infancy Fact Sheet.  

(Note: I don’t want to be judged for nursing past a year, so I am sure not judging anyone who nurses less or doesn’t nurse at all! There are so many factors that affect a mother’s very personal and sensitive decision about how to feed her child, and each person deserves to have their decision respected and supported.)