It is not common to see a breastfeeding toddler. Indeed, I was first asked if she was almost weaned when Chubs was four or five months old - we hadn't even started solids yet. In Australia a little over 20% of babies are breastfed at 12 months (1) and many fully wean soon after. It is even less common to see a toddler breastfed in public. This is partly because some women find it easier to avoid the critism and just feed at home, but also practical - a toddler is not a newborn, and a toddler can be expected to wait for a feed if it's not convenient.
A toddler can also be expected to use her manners. We taught Chubs the sign language for 'milk' which she uses when she wants a feed. I much prefer her to look at me and make the sign for 'milk' (which is oh-so-cute) than to whinge and scratch at my shirt front. She is a big girl, she can use her manners. I love that when she's done she says 'ta' and pulls my shirt down to cover me up again. Of course, there's the phrase 'if they can ask for it, then they're too old for it'. Well, using that logic, Chubs has been to old since the day she was born. She 'asked' for a feed then by rooting around with her mouth, by sucking her fists and by crying. She can ask for a drink of water now by pointing at her sippy cup. She can ask for a story by picking up a book and bringing it to me - she will even swap books from my hands if she wants a different one to the one that I was trying to read to her. So using that logic, she's too old for a drink of water and a story, too. Even when she is old enough to say 'Mummy, can I have a breastfeed please?' it's not her need and desire for breastfeeding which has changed, but her cognative and language development.
So why am I still feeding her? In summary, because it is good for her, it's good for me and it's biologically normal. Nutritionally, breastmilk can provide a toddler with 31% of energy, 38% of protein, 45% of vitamin A, and 95% of vitamin C daily requirements (2). She's been a bit coldy recently and we've been trying to get her to eat some mandarins for the vitamin C but she's not been a fan. When I saw that statistic I relaxed a lot. It's a great food which is perfectly designed for her.
The immune benefits are huge - even if you ignore the nutritional and comfort benefits. If you could go to the shop and buy some sort of 'toddler immune supplement', imagine the claims they would make.
- Immune boosting properties
- Perfectly designed by a human antibody making machine
- Tailored exactly to the specific environment that you live it. Get antibodies to many of the diseases you are likely to come in contact with, both over your life time and in the short term.
Can you imagine how much of that would get sold? I can give that very substance, full of my antibodies, straight to my daughter for free, and yet I still feel the need to justify it?
The benefits of breastfeeding, of course, are more than just the properties of the milk itself. The comfort and closeness of breastfeeding is beneficial for both mother and baby, indeed the whole family (see Dear Husband's comments below.) A breastfeed can soothe a skinned knee or a shove from another kid at the playground. What's the harm in that? Many people comment on breastfeeding as shown in 'The Slap', where it was often used to avoid discipline. The problem there is not with the breastfeeding itself but the way it was used, in the same way that anything can be used as a distraction to avoid discipline. A feed to reconnect after a day apart at daycare/ work, a feed to sleep or to resettle at night or a feed after a tumble off the climbing frame at the park - a wonderful way to soothe and comfort my precious girl. There is no evidence to suggest that breastfeeding causes clinginess or emotionally needy children, indeed the opposite is often the case. She will grow out of needing to suckle for comfort, just as babies grow out of needing to suck on a dummy/ finger, needing a teddy or a blankie for comfort or needing to be swaddled at night to sleep. She will grow out of this when she is ready, or I will encourage her to wean if I'm not happy to keep feeding, but while we are both happy and both needing this connection, it will stay. Indeed, some women (such as those who have rare conditions leading to chronic under-supply like Insufficient Glandular Tissue or those who have intitated breastfeeding for an adopted baby/ child) breastfeed their child for small amounts of milk for its non nutritive benefits, and then feed the baby with a bottle for the bulk of their food requirements.
Dear Husband says that his attitude has changed. 'Now that I realise the health benefits of breastfeeding a toddler, I don't look at Chubs and think 'she's too old'. I think that we're doing the best for her health and her future by continuing and I'd rather do that for her than for her to have artificial / processed foods.' He also added about breastfeeding an older baby in general 'Some women can't and that's ok, but I think it also fosters a much more nuturing feeling in the home. It's really nice that Chubs will be playing on the floor with her toys and then she'll pop up and do the milk sign, it's a nice loving atmosphere to have'.
The World Health Organisation recommends breastfeeding for two years and beyond; and not just in third world countries, either. Dr Katherine Dettwyler (an anthropologist) has extensively studied weaning ages in other animals, particuarly non-human primates. She compared the weaning age of other mammals (particuarly large body weight non human primates) against factors such as length of gestation, weight gains, teeth development and age of sexual maturity. Using these studies she has determined he natural age of weaning for humans - that is, the age at which weaning would proably occur without cultural influences - to be between two and a half and seven years of age. Many refer to breastfeeding past 12 months as 'extended breastfeeding' but I'm not a big fan of that phrase. If it's the normal timeframe that someone should feed for, then what's extended about it? That's like saying that because we can keep babies born at 25 weeks gestation alive through artificial measures, then having a pregnancy last nine months is 'extended pregnancy'. I think the phrase 'full term breastfeeding' is more appropriate.
Now it's easy to say what things would be like without cultural and societal influences, but of course we do live within a society with expections, norms and influences. For example, gorillas can wean at whatever age they want; that doesn't change the fact that Chubs goes to daycare while I'm at work, which is obviously a hurdle in our breastfeeding relationship. 'The real world' is were we live each day, so to pretend that it doesn't exist would be foolish and unhelpful. However; here's perhaps the best thing about breastfeeding a toddler - I've already done most of the hard work. Chubs is a healthy little girl who enjoys a diet of many foods and is not reliant on breastmilk for all her nutrition, indeed some days she has very little breastmilk at all. There's no rushing home for a feed any more and it's much easier to plan feeds around a glass of wine, rather than the other way around with a pumped bottle, 'just in case'. I've not left any pumped milk for her (except at her nine/ ten hour long daycare day) for months. At 12 months my milk supply is 'practically bulletproof' - I no longer need to worry about a missed feed (or two or three). Cracked nipples, leaking and engorgment are a distant memory of last winter. Yes, breastfeeding an older baby does bring some new challenges. Since six months we've faced challenges of biting (with teeth!), sore breasts from acrobatic feeding and supply drops during my periods, but the bulk of the hard work is done. Most of the benefits for a fraction of the work - woo hoo!
I will be dropping my pumping session at work from this week, which will make a HUGE difference to my stress levels during the work day. No longer will I need to pack up the breast pump the night before, charge the batteries, pack the ice packs, go through the nightmare that was trying to fit pumping sessions into an impossibly tight teaching day, take home my expressed breastmilk in the cooler, scald the milk to inactivate the lipase and put it into labelled bottles for the freezer, wash the pump parts, recharge the batteries and then pack it all up again the next day. Once I've finished up my small freezer stash, Chubs will have soy milk or cow's milk at daycare.
I have to thank a close friend and colleague for her support during my pumping journey. We're a bit tight for space and there is no free room available at my work that I can pump in; not even a store room or something like that. (I don't have my own office but share a staff room with ten other teachers.) I've been using her office to pump in for the last six months and I really am indebted to her. If it wasn't for her letting me use her office to pump, then I'm not sure what I would have done. Had it not been possible to pump at work, then worst case scenario would have been early weaning. Thankfully I was able to avoid that. It was inconvenient for her since she needs to use her office to you know - do work in, so I appreciate that she made the effort to reorganise her day so that it would be available for me as much as she could. To thank her for her support, I made this cake to express my thanks. (See what I did there :) )
|I put little milk bottles on it since they don't make little breast pump lollies.|
I hope you're all impressed that I made it from scratch, too!
So, where to from here? Well, simply - on. Breastfeeding is beneficial and enjoyable for everyone in our family, so we will continue. Perhaps Chubs will wean soon on her own, perhaps I will encourage weaning. Perhaps something will happen which will force weaning; I don't know. There are two people in this breastfeeding relationship and we will continue while everyone is happy.
Do I think that everyone should breastfeed their toddler? Do I think that everyone should breastfeed full stop? As I've mentioned before, I'm a keen advocate for breastfeeding, I think it's an important public health issue and I obviously talk about it a lot. I feel that it is a responsible thing to speak out about unethical advertising of formula companies and to normalise breastfeeding. However, how a particular family choses to feed their child is totally their business, and none of mine. I fully respect others' choices as to how they feed their children and at what age they wean. There are as many different feeding/ weaning stories in the world as there are children and that diversity is to be celebrated. Please don't read this post as me telling others what to do. It's about me sharing our family's journey so far and the reasoning behind it. If you can take something from it which you think is worthwhile for your family, then I feel honoured. This is not an anti-formula post in the slightest, but a celebration of my precious breastfeeding relationship with my beautiful walking, dancing, breastfeeding little girl.
1 - Donath and Amir, 2000
2 - WHO/CDR/93.4
3 - Mortensen, K. Lactation Resource Centre