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Breastfeeding for Longer Than a Year
By Hedra

Well, first, even the mainstream experts suggest that a year is just the minimum. Go look up the AAP breastfeeding statements. It says "at least a year" not only a year. There are a lot of links/articles/etc in the Breastfeeding Cubby about 'extended nursing' or 'nursing a toddler' (plus more at Dr. Dettwyler's website) - but rather than duplicate all that here, I'll just tell you my reasons (all for Gabe, as Brendan isn't a year old yet!). Note that some of these I discovered after the fact - the true inspiration for extended nursing was only item 1, the rest are benefits I discovered later.

  1. Weaning didn't work (in the larger sense of the term). I'd planned to wean at a year, but when I tried to cut him back just one feeding, he freaked out. He clung, cried, pleaded, begged to be allowed to nurse (gestures, mostly, but some words). He acted out, was anxious, and overly emotional even at other times while I was trying to drop even ONE feeding that he wasn't ready to drop. DH kept asking me when I was going to wean him (he was a year old, after all, and I'd SAID I was weaning at a year . . .).

    I was nearly panicked by the intensity of Gabe's reaction. It was clear that trying to wean him was devastating him. So I stopped trying. I said at first we'd just take it slowly (DH noticed the negative reaction, too, BTW). When I finally said (after research, and reassurance from the Breastfeeding forum here) - nope, not weaning by force, I'll let him wean and work WITH him (rather than against what he clearly needs), DH was fine with that - turned out that he'd just expected me to decide what was right and do it, he didn't care WHAT that decision was as long as I'd figured out the best path. PHEW!

  2. Nutrition. Gabe was a picky eater. His pediatrician was happy when I told him I was nursing past a year, because, as he said, "Breast milk is a nutritious part of a healthy toddler diet" - he knew that as long as Gabe was nursing some of the time, he'd be getting a bit of protein, some good quality carbohydrates, and loads of vitamins and other chemical compounds that would help his digestion of starches and proteins from other sources. Hard to argue with that. (Plus, we never had to use a pediatric electrolyte solution when he had a stomach flu - just nursed!)

  3. Health. When Gabe was 18 months old, he developed croup. It was bad enough that the doctor's office sent me straight to the ER. They admitted him to the hospital, and of course, I stayed with him, too. I was nursing, after all. (BTW, insurance covered my food because I was breastfeeding - didn't matter how old he was!) Every shift change, the nurses would commend me on breastfeeding still. Every doctor was thrilled that I was still going, and every specialist encouraged me to keep going as long as I could. They were somewhat stunned that I was extended nursing while also working full time, but that just made them happier. Not one person said 'go until he's 2' or until he's 3 or 4 or 5 . . . all said 'as long as you can' !! They pointed out all the new research that shows how many benefits accrue to children who are breastfed, and there's absolutely no evidence that the benefits ever stop.

    Yes, the benefits decrease over time, with the VAST majority of benefits in the earlier days, weeks, and months. But why stop just because there's only a small benefit left? That's like stopping eating peas because it is the only veggie you can find at the store - if you aren't getting a full range of veggies, you should just quit eating veggies entirely. Right? I mean, you can't be getting all THAT much benefit just from PEAS.

  4. Confidence and trust. (the AP thing...) One other thing my pediatrician commented on was that kids who were allowed to nurse past a year had more confidence at an earlier age than kids who had been weaned by then. (This refers to kids who did not self-wean, BTW.) Other kids catch up eventually, he noted, but why not give them the advantage? And that got me to thinking about why the advantage was there in the first place - trust. I respond to his needs. He needs to nurse. He trusts that I will respond to his needs, so he has the confidence that no matter where he goes, he has 100% undeniable absolute perfect backup. His teachers at school noted that they'd NEVER (ever!) seen a kid as confident and self-assured as he was. He's a worrier by nature (higher anxiety than most kids) but he is comfortable with himself, comfortable in how he handles new situations, in charge of what and who he is. He is impervious to social pressure, comfortable finding his own solutions to any problem (including social ones), and while he's still clearly stressed by strange new events, he HANDLES that stress wonderfully, on his own. I didn't make him that way, but I permitted him to be that way by letting him know in the most basic way (FOOD) that he could count on me to back him up.

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  5. The whole gradual change thing . . . By this, I mean that babies don't suddenly switch into a new person when they hit a year. Or at 18 months. Or at 2. Each day, they shift a little. And sometimes shift back, too. Each day, Gabe was the very same being as I had carried in my womb, and the very same as I gave birth to - just a tiny bit older. In that process, there isn't any hard line. They don't even learn to 'ask' to nurse all at once - they cry, mouth, wiggle, change positions, make faces, gesture, pat, point, tug on shirt, make up a name for it, and then learn to ask with words. If I cut him off 'because he could ask for it' I'd have to cut him off at birth, when he clearly asked to nurse by mouthing his hands. All that development is gradual, not magically a baby one day and a toddler the next. It isn't as if a strange toddler walked up to me and asked to suck on my breasts! This is my baby. My child, my growing offspring, slowly transforming into an older being, but if his development doesn't take overnight leaps, why should his diet or his social behavior or his need (or preference) for a particular type of comfort?

  6. Best boo-boo fixer and tantrum-stopper on the planet! Not much that a little 'yala' couldn't fix! Temper tantrums, overtired and won't go to sleep, bad doctor visit, bumped knee, bruised ego . . . nursing cures them all, and sends him back into the world feeling loved, fed, cared for, stable, happy, and supported. Granted, it was just ONE tool in my mommy toolbox, but why throw out a perfectly good multi-tool, when you might need some screws tightened, some wires cut, etc.

So, that's my general reasoning at this point. I don't hope that Brendan will nurse exactly as long as Gabe - I just hope that he'll nurse as long as HE needs to. I don't see him stopping suddenly at a year.

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