“Yeah, I’m fine with breastfeeding, as long as she’s not old enough to ask for it,” said the prospective nanny. I had just explained I would be working from home so I could nurse my baby.
Then, I was at a playgroup, and a mother announced that it was her son’s one-year birthday that day. She added a little wistfully, “so he had his last breastfeed last night.”
Yikes! Happy birthday, poor guy! At that point, my one-year-old was nowhere near weaning, and it was painful to imagine what she’d do if I cut off her “mama milk” supply.
Recently, however, my six-year-old witnessed a 4-year-old nursing and said, “Mommy, she’s too old to nurse. If she nurses now, she’ll still be nursing when she’s six! I did a bit of a double-take. While I did agree with her that it was unusual to see a 4-year-old nursing, I was very interested in the negative judgment implicit in my daughter’s comment. Especially because both my girls nursed well past the ‘asking for it’ phases of their lives — between 2 and 2.5 years each!
Can anyone but a mother and child really determine the right amount of time a child should nurse? While the World Health Organization recommends nursing until at least age 2, and longer if the child and mother benefit, I have the sense that my daughter is not the only one who is quick to judge.
Yet, we don’t see many women breastfeeding in general (less than 14 percent of women in the U.S. exclusively breastfed through just 6 months of age in 2006), so when we see anyone nursing, it surprises us. And the older the child gets, the more unusual it is, and the more weird.
In my experience nursing, however, the longer a woman nurses, the more natural it seems to simply lift a shirt and feed a youngster when they need milk or comfort. Yet while many mothers become increasingly accustomed to this behavior, it seems as though society becomes less comfortable.
Extended nursing has been a natural part of child-raising in the past, and is even common in certain other parts of the world. Mothering Magazine published a fascinating article written by a Canadian mother living with her toddler in Mongolia (breastfeeding rate of nearly 60 percent at 6-9 months). She described how she initially differed from her Mongolian peers during playgroups. When an argument broke out and her son was upset, she would try to distract him or talk out the problem. She reported that this approach succeeded in calming him only half the time.
She compared calming tactics employed by her Mongolian peers: “At the first murmur of discord, [the mother] would lift her shirt and start waving her boobs around enthusiastically, calling out, ‘Come here, baby, look what mama’s got for you!’ Her son would look up from the toys to the bull’s-eyes of his mother’s breasts and invariably toddle over. Success rate? 100 percent.”
(Read the entire article here.) http://www.naturalchild.org/guest/ruth_kamnitzer.html
While I can hardly picture US mothers turning into groups of enthusiastic boob-wavers (it seems American females have reserved that activity for adult males instead of our babies), I like the idea that there exists a multitude of possible breastfeeding relationships, and we might not be wise to judge which approach is right too quickly.
But I’d love to hear others weigh in – is there some sort of harm caused by extended breastfeeding, or is it just harm caused by not adhering to what’s normal in our society? And if it’s the latter, do those in support of a breastfeeding culture even have a responsibility to suffer through the growing pains of re-initiating breastfeeding into a society that has forgotten how to incorporate it?
Related: Best Baby Bottle and Nipple Choices