I wrote this as a response to this article. I feel that given the current misunderstandings about breastfeeding a child past the age of 1 year, it deserves a post of its own! So here was my response:
I think it is still unusual to see a mother breastfeeding their 3-year-old child, so it’s normal to feel a little uncomfortable with it. I appreciate your attempt to be as understanding about it, but this post clearly illustrates that more education needs to be circulating about extended breastfeeding.
The natural state of the human body is to breastfeed until a child is about 5 or 6 years of age. Of course, in our society, this would not be considered the norm, by any stretch, but anthropologically speaking, this is what our bodies are made to do. How do we know this? Numerous case studies in ethnographies have shown 5 to be the mean age at which children wean in every natural culture in which breastfeeding has been studied. Additionally, our bodies will continue to alter the composition of breastmilk to meet the changing physiological needs of our children until they reach somewhere between 5 & 6 years of age. Anecdotally, this is also the age when the human immune system matures. So the child will continue to reap the benefits of increased immunological protection from the mother until their own system can take over.
It might surprise you to know, that until only very recently in our history children regularly would breastfeed until 4 or 5 years of age, especially the immigrant children whose parents pioneered the Western World.
OK, so enough of the history lesson. We live in the 21st century you say. Fair enough.
As I have always asserted, children will reap the benefits of breastmilk far beyond the 1 year recommended by the AAP & the CPS, and even beyond the 2 year recommendation given by WHO. There is no other way to receive the immunities passed from mother to child through breastmilk. Given how much our children are exposed to in this day and age, that can only be beneficial. You may think, Hey! Getting sick improves my child’s immune system. This is only true of certain illnesses, and being sick more than 6 times a year, especially with an upper respiratory virus such as a cold or flu can actually cause long-term damage to your child. Additionally, the immunities provided by Mama don’t prevent your child from being exposed to such illnesses, it helps them fight them. Your body is still learning how to cope with viral and bacterial onslaughts without enduring all the damage done by the illness.
There are many other physiological benefits given by breastfeeding beyond year 1 or year 2. Many of them are the same ones you already know about breastfeeding an infant. They don’t stop benefiting the child just because they have reached some arbitrary cultural deadline. Breastfeeding continues to improve the overall health of the child well into the school years.
Psychologically and psychosocially, people always worry about a child’s independence if they breastfeed “too long”. Let’s face it, we are talking about a three-year old. How independent should a three year old be? Do we not hug and comfort our three-year olds on a daily basis? Do they not need our affection and reassurance to face what is still a very new world to them? Of course! They are still very young children at three. Breastfeeding is just another way a mother has to comfort her child. It’s a bond that, when enjoyed by both parties, is very beneficial to overall self-esteem and wellbeing…just like it is for infants.
Just because a three-year old breastfeeds, it doesn’t mean they are emotionally or socially stunted. Why would it? A child that can return to its parent for an emotional and physiological re-charge is a child that can go back into the world more confident, knowing they have a parent who will help them, and care for them. They know they are free to explore & make mistakes because they have someone who cares for them in the wings waiting to help. This is what we do for our children every day with our hugs and our reassurance. Breastfeeding is just another tool that provides that kind of boost. There is nothing inherent about breastfeeding that is different from a hug or a snuggle–except that we have preconceived cultural notions about it.
It should also be pointed out, that children that breastfeed into their third year can use a cup. They have achieved all the milestones that other children have achieved, they eat solid foods, they drink from cups, they can help prepare their own meals and take their dishes to the kitchen. They just also happen to still breastfeed. It’s not a substitute for those things, it’s an addition to.
Now to address some specifics from this post:
Teeth are a worrisome thing for all first time breastfeeders. The reality is, when a child is latched on and sucking, they cannot also bite. And its a lot easier to get your 3 year-old to not bite you than it is to make your 5 month old understand that mommy is not a teething ring. And let’s face it, babies start getting teeth way before they should be weaned. I know my own son cut his first two teeth before two months old!! He had a full set by 1 year! Teeth is not an issue exclusive to extended breastfeeding, nor is it a contraindication to breastfeeding at any age.
Starting school is a big step for any small child. I’m sure your son’s friend has developed multiple coping strategies for stress, just like all our children have by this age. Will he be asking for the boobjuice at school? Probably not. I’m pretty sure by 3 years old he only asks his mother for the breast and if she’s not there, I doubt he’ll be asking his teacher. Will he find it a relief to come home and have a little bonding time with Mama via breastfeeding? Almost certainly. But again, this is just another tool mothers have to reconnect with their children.
What will his friends think?
Yeah, he might get teased. That’s the reality of our society. Something that is outside the “norm” or is unusual is often picked at or judged, especially by children. But children who are 3 and 4 often don’t quite have the judgmental attitude of older children and unless their parents have told them that it is “wrong” or “bad” they likely wouldn’t assign a moral judgement to it. Their world is still quite new and they don’t fully appreciate what’s normal or not normal. My 3-year-old son is friends with a boy with developmental delays. Other than knowing his friend needs some extra help sometimes, he has no clue that there is anything “wrong” with him. Because there’s not. He would only think that if we treated the boy as if there were something “wrong”.
So at any rate, I hope I’ve shed a little light on why extended breastfeeding is beneficial, and perhaps why we shouldn’t jump to conclusions about children who are breastfed past 1 or 2 years. I hope to see many more mothers going the distance with breastfeeding, it truly is beneficial to our children and the only thing “wrong” with it is the artificial judgements that society places upon it without really understanding or knowing its benefits.