A former boss of mine told me she was breastfed until she was in kindergarten. She said she would come home from school and ask for breastmilk. I remember being surprised by this and then quickly developing my two rules for how long I thought women should breastfeed.
1) The “Talk Test” rule: If your baby can tell you he/she is hungry, using actual words in a sentence like, “mom, I’m hungry”, then the kid is too old for breastmilk.
2) The 90 degrees rule: If while lying across your lap, his/her legs can bend at a 90 degree angle and dangle, then the kid is too old for breastmilk.
But since I published the part 1 of this breastfeeding series, I was approached both off and online a lot about this subject. During my many discussions, I realised that our opinions on breastfeeding are mostly based on personal opinion and personal experience. We’re all coming to the table with a bias. Some of us have two.
I figured I should start with some science.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), “exclusive breastfeeding is recommended up to 6 months of age, with continued breastfeeding along with appropriate complementary foods up to two years of age and beyond”.1 Another study stated that “Breastfeeding for less than 6 months compared with 6 months or longer was an independent predictor of mental health problems through childhood and into adolescence”.2 According to a study by Kramer and Kakuma, exclusive breastfeeding for 6 months has several advantages over only 3-4 months for the following reasons: lower risk for gastrointestinal infection for the infant, more rapid maternal weight loss after birth and delayed return of mentrual periods.3
Ok, so the WHO is behind breastfeeding, at least until the child is 2 years old. But what about beyond that? The studies I found mostly used 6 months as the mark. I was looking for more, what about the type of people who violate my 2 rules? Do they harm their children? Are their 4 year olds as strong as teenagers? Are they the “helicopter moms” who call professors to complain about their 20 year old’s grade?
I decided to ask a few friends of mine.
Why does prolonged breastfeeding make some of us uncomfortable?
“I suspect that has more to do with arbitrary societal norms than the legitimacy of extended breastfeeding” stated my friend Heather. Why else did the TIME magazine cover cause such an uproar?
“I have watched both of my nephews nurse well past their third birthday,” she added, “The first was weaned when my sister-in-law became pregnant again. Now nephew #2 is almost four, and he still breastfeeds occasionally. Having seen them grow up this way has seemed totally natural.”
My friend Shannon agreed. When she first found out she was expecting, she assumed she’d breastfeed for 6 months to a year. But her daughter’s first birthday arrived before she knew it. “I started to get asked when I was going to give her cow’s milk, or when I would cut back on our sessions. I started to feel pressure and it was starting to stress me out, and, in turn (stress) her. I didn’t feel either one of us were close to ending that part of our relationship, and I was feeling almost guilty for breastfeeding her around others. Her limbs were getting longer, and it’s not as graceful…. But how can something that clearly is so natural be so wrong?”
Shannon had a compelling point, if it was natural and healthy, what was the problem?
What about boundaries?
But I couldn’t shake the images I’d seen on TV. Look up the “Bitty” sketches from the show Little Britain- about an adult who continues to demand breastmilk from his elderly mother. I remembered an episode of “Supernanny” where a mother had to share her bed with her 4 year old daughter who would lift up her shirt frequently throughout the night to feed. The child would yell, “I HATE YOU” if her mother didn’t comply.
My friend Kristie (featured in my previous post) would see her step-brother, who was breastfed until he was a toddler, try to pull his mom’s shirt up in public. She saw no reason to nurse a toddler. Kristie brought up this point in her prenatal class and the teacher Deb, said something that changed Kristie’s tune.
“Actually, the shirt pulling thing has more to do with teaching your toddler manners and boundaries than breastfeeding,” Deb said, “It is known that breast milk adapts to the child’s needs as they age. Do what you are comfortable with, but breast milk has benefits as long as the child continues nursing.”
I have to admit, after talking to my friends, I’m not closer to having a firm opinion, or at least one that doesn’t just sprout from my awkwardness.
Breastmilk is good for babies, no arguments here. But the breast will naturally produce milk as long as there is suckling. So what guides us? Biology? Social norms? The fact that your child is starting kindergarten?
What do you all think? How long is too long?
- Oddy WH, Kendall GE, Li J, et al. The Long-Term Effects of Breastfeeding on Child and Adolescent Mental Health: A Pregnancy Cohort Study Followed for 14 Years. Journal of Pediatrics. 2010; 156: 568-74.
- Kramer MS, Kakuma R. Optimal duration of exclusive breastfeeding. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2012, Issue