Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Why Would I Breastfeed my Three Year Old?

I got asked about this topic last week. It always takes me by surprise because although in our culture it is normal for women to breastfeed for about a year (coinciding with maternity leave), in my SUB culture it is very normal to breastfeed each child for a number of years.  Three years per child seems to be about average, but I have friends within that subculture who breastfed for two weeks, and others who breastfed for four or five years.  I have one friend who breastfed her oldest child until he was seven.  This doesn't faze me at all.  Given this as my context for "normal," you can see how easy it is for me to forget that breastfeeding a two or three year old can seem very foreign to many of the people I know.

Riley, 2 years old.  I was pregnant with Amarys here.

I'm a birth junkie.  I love all things pregnancy, birth, and baby related.  As a birth doula I've read and seen and experienced a lot of situations and people who believe deeply in the natural, biological, or indigenous way of life.  As the child of a birth junkie mom, I grew up steeped in natural birth and natural eating and natural everything.  My mom and my aunts all breastfed their children for several years, because it was 'natural.'

I'm also a breastfeeding counselor.  I have taken an intensive course on lactation through Douglas College that involved over 35 hours of clinical work and 40 hours of class time.  In my spare time I like to read World Health Organization publications on human lactation, visit the International Baby Food Action Network website, and email my photos to lactation activists  =).  One of my favourite groups is my La Leche League group, where in a city full of non crunchers, I have a pocket of 'my people' who crunch.  We vary in our levels of crunchiness, but in general we breathe a sigh of relief in our meetings because we're with other women who 'get us.'  Because we're kind of weird.  And we know it.

I'm okay with being weird!  It's always suited me to be on the fringe somewhere.  Breastfeeding isn't for everybody, and breastfeeding long term certainly isn't.  I've got no judgment for anyone's choices when it comes to breastfeeding because I believe that women are smart and I trust them to be capable of making awesome decisions that fit them the best.  It sucks when women plan a certain feeding scenario or duration and it doesn't work out because of nature or lack of support (SUCKS), but when people are happy with their feeding outcomes?  I say AWESOME PANTS.  You rock.  Two days?  Two weeks?  Fifty years?  Rock on.  If people are not happy with their feeding outcomes?  You rock extra hard.  Seriously.  You did the best you could and that is enough.

I'm on the fringe when it comes to my passion about milk and I like it but more than that, I actually really, really believe in breastfeeding.  I'm passionate about women's issues in general and am a pretty fierce feminist.  I know a ton of information on breastfeeding, human lactation, the components of breastmilk, cultural attitudes and their effect on breastfeeding rates and subsequent maternal and infant health, and worldwide trends (for example, the worldwide average age of weaning is 4 years old.  Yes, that is average, yes that is worldwide, yes, that means that many, many children older than age 4 are breastfeeding in cultures other than our own).  If you compare duration of lactation in humans to other mammals, it is biologically normal for us to breastfeed our young for between 2.5 and 7 years.

An important component of the human immune system is a substance called secretory IgA or SIgA.  This lines the gut and provides lifelong, frontline defense against disease and inflammation.  Newborn humans create no SIgA until approximately 4 to 6 weeks of age.  All of their SIgA comes from their mother's milk during this time period.  SIgA is not replicable and is not present in infant formula.  Children's bodies make only trace amounts at first, and gradually increase over time.  Their bodies do not produce sufficient levels of SIgA until around 24 months of age.  That is why Health Canada and the World Health Organization and lactation experts recommend breastfeeding for a minimum of two years.  The WHO recommendation is worded as follows:

Exclusive breastfeeding is recommended up to 6 months of age, with continued breastfeeding along with appropriate complementary foods up to two years of age or beyond.

Why would I breastfeed my three year old?  Because it is healthy and feels normal to me.  It is my experience that once children near the two year mark, their development makes them resistant to change and particularly needy of reassurance and comfort.  Sure, they are flailing around for inappropriate independence and drive us bonkers with cries of MINE! and NO! and MINE DO IT! but they need lots of hugs and kisses during that year, too.  Lots of reassurance that life is okay, despite all the emotional turmoil.  To stop breastfeeding at this point simply because I've reached an arbitrary age limit seems unnecessary.  Like taking away a lovey right when they need one, you know?  Most kids gradually replace breastfeeding with more emotionally mature methods of interacting and more and more food, and eventually you realize, hey!  They've weaned.  Some don't (see Riley's weaning story).

It worked for me.  And probably will this time around, too, since Amarys is nearing two years old and showing no signs of weaning yet.  Yes, I do it in public.  I don't do it every two hours like with a newborn, so  nursing her in public doesn't happen every day.  But I think it is a good idea for people to see toddlers breastfeeding more often.  Plus, it's just my body and my toddler so who cares what I do?  Nope, I don't use a cover.  I'm not an octopus and those things require constant fiddling.  Plus I just don't think it's something that needs covering up.  It's nutrition and comfort.  Kind of like feeding my kid steamed carrots while she sits on my lap or something--it's not that big a deal, I don't cover her head when feeding her carrots... And hopefully the more women who breastfeed in public?  The less of a big deal it will seem.

And to my future daughters in law?  You're welcome.  Your men will see breastfeeding as pretty cool.


Caryn Ouwehand said...

Amen Sista. Every mama needs to make her own decisions.

Lauren @ Hobo Mama said...

Yes! I'm so immersed in the subculture that I forget sometimes I'm already weird for breastfeeding a 1-year-old (which in turn seems weird to me). In advocating and allowing for long-term breastfeeding, there's a fine line to walk where you're not condemning people who breastfeed for shorter or longer or not at all, so I really appreciate your take on the whole topic. And go, you, for continuing to make breastfeeding normal!

Dionna @ Code Name: Mama said...

Ditto Lauren. When I went to the Hollister nurse-in the other day, I actually had to stop and remind myself that I am now outside the norm (again) for breastfeeding my 1+ year old. So strange -she's still SO TINY! (Then again, my 5yo was asking about nursing last night, so there's my comparison.)
Thank you for this awesome post, Melissa. You hit so many nails on the head.
~Dionna @

Dionna @ Code Name: Mama said...

Ditto Lauren. When I went to the Hollister nurse-in the other day, I actually had to stop and remind myself that I am now outside the norm (again) for breastfeeding my 1+ year old. So strange -she's still SO TINY! (Then again, my 5yo was asking about nursing last night, so there's my comparison.)
Thank you for this awesome post, Melissa. You hit so many nails on the head.
~Dionna @

Heather T said...

Growing up I only witnessed one person breastfeeding, and it was a shocking experience, and I thought the baby was way too old (maybe 6 months). Then when I was 20 I worked in childcare and was completely baffled when a coworker, picked up her toddling one year old and nursed him. He was just eating CHEERIOS a minute ago! Little did I know that I'd be nursing my first child for 4.5 years. I wasn't immersed in a subculture, but I learned it wasn't abnormal, and when the time came, it turned out it felt totally natural.

Momma Jorje said...

It does suck when something prevents women from having the nursing relationship they want to have. I had some guilt over nudging my DD into weaning just shy of 3yo because of nursing aversion. We made it through pregnancy, even! Still, nearly 3 is a pretty good start! She still asks about it from time to time.

I, too, am passionate about breastfeeding. And co-sleeping. And some other mommy-related stuff because I loves me some birth stuff, too.

melissa v. said...

Thank you for all the supportive comments on this post! You guys are all awesome. It is amazing how our little ones still seem *so little* to us and yet to many observers they are "too old" !!! To each woman her own. And each nursing relationship its own! My first two kids were 14 months, and my second two were 3 yrs and nearly 2 but still nursing. Each journey is different, each child different, each momma in a different place every time. =)

lori said...

A [late] shout out on this post!

You have good perspectives, my friend. Good, good.