“But if they can ask for milk, they are too old to nurse, right?”If you are anything like the average pregnant American woman, then you are likely planning on nursing for about three months, until your baby gets teeth, or, if you’ve done your research on what the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends, maybe until one year. You know that breast milk is filled with everything your baby needs to thrive during infancy. But like most Americans, you probably see no reason to nurse past a year. You might think extended nursing is weird. Maybe you imagine a woman in a flowing skirt living in a commune nursing her three-year old barefoot child? Or maybe you haven’t thought much about what type of woman chooses to nurse her toddler or preschooler, but you know that YOU just couldn’t do it. While extended nursing might not be right for every mother-baby pair, you should know that there are “normal” women all around you who are nursing their babies to two, three, four, and sometimes even five or six years old. They just don’t make it public.
Three and a half years ago, my son, F, was born. His tiny face, for me so reminiscent of a baby bird searching for a worm, surveyed this blindingly bright, cold world for something so instinctual that once he found it, he likely decided right then that he would never give it up. He hit the baby jackpot, discovering the warm, delicious comfort of mama milk. Of course, being the scientist that I am, I had researched the numerous benefits of breast milk. But for F, milk was more than nutrition; it was more than an immune system. For F, mama milk, or “milko” as he later came to call it, was his lifeline to me, to the body that had nourished him and helped him grow from two tiny cells to a potentially self-sustaining human being. Breast milk is so much more than just nutrition. Breast milk signifies and solidifies the unique relationship that can only occur between a mother and her child.
Nursing past infancy makes evolutionary sense. Being the biologist that I am, I often look to species that mimic our social structure when trying to determine if my parenting ideas make sense. Enter, the chimpanzee! Whether or not you hold chimpanzee mothers as your parenting ideal, there is no denying that they have an incredibly close bond to their offspring. Mothers carry their babies for the first eight months of life and often go on to have life long bonds with their children.1 In closely related primate species like chimpanzees, individuals wean at almost five years of age.2 When a juvenile no longer needs breast milk, he or she naturally weans through a slow process. Most human children, left to their own devices, will not wean as infants, but will do so slowly as toddlers or pre-schoolers.3 Can we trust biology? Can we trust our children?
In a world where less than 40% of infants are exclusively breastfed for the first six months of life4, education on the benefits of breastfeeding is crucial to public health. If every child were breastfed in addition to consuming solid food for the first two years of life, about 800,000 children would be saved every year!5 Breast milk contains all of the nutrients necessary to help babies thrive plus a whole slew of antibodies that prevent childhood illness. Breastfeeding mothers experience a reduced risk of breast and ovarian cancer, type II diabetes, and postpartum depression. And get this; it takes up to 800 extra calories per day to produce breast milk, which means breastfeeding mamas lose the baby weight much more quickly than those who formula feed!
Let’s get back to my mama-milk obsessed son F. From the moment I started nursing him, the hormone oxytocin that allows milk to be released also helped me to fall in love with him, and him with me. Nursing helped to soothe hurt bodies when F fell down and hurt feelings when the world was a scary place. I had planned on nursing him for two years. That is what the World Health Organization recommends, and I follow rules. However, F’s second birthday came and went, but he didn’t wean. As a matter of fact, he was nursing more than his newborn sister! And despite the fact that I had imagined that nursing an older child would seem weird, it didn’t. Instead, nursing F through the transition from being an only child to being a big brother helped him to know that I was still his mama too. I realized that all of my apprehension about nursing a toddler or preschooler had come from our culture, not from science and most definitely not from evolution. He was still reaping all of the nutritional and immune benefits of breast milk, but past infancy, the emotional benefits were even more apparent. F nursed until about a month after his third birthday. I never thought I would nurse a three-year-old. But I did and I feel strongly that it helped him in more ways that I can count.
If you are planning on breastfeeding your baby, set up your support system before you are a sleep-deprived new mama. If you have women close to you who have breastfed, let them know you will need their help. Hire a postpartum doula to help you transition into new motherhood. Check our your local La Leche League group. Read The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding.6 Do whatever you need to ensure a smooth start to a healthy breastfeeding relationship. I promise you will not regret it.
5Black RE, Victora CG, Walker SP, and the Maternal and Child Nutrition Study Group. Maternal and child undernutrition and overweight in low-income and middle-income countries. Lancet 2013; published online
6Gotsch, G., and J. Torqus. “The womanly art of breastfeeding.” La Leche League International 6 (2008).