Practicing attachment parenting generally leads to a great deal of research. In addition to simply wanting to be well educated about my parenting choices, I’ve found myself researching parenting topics regularly for many reasons. Family and friends tend to come to me for advice and information because they know I’ll find the most accurate available. This led me to further research in college, focusing most of my electives in psychology and education. You’d be surprised how much a thorough knowledge of such topics helps in political advocacy, as well.
In Western culture, mothers wean their babies at younger and younger ages. With the social norms lowering to under a year, often under a few months, mothers often think what everyone else is doing must be what’s best for their child. In reality, this is only the case in extreme circumstances. The more the medical and scientific communities research breastfeeding, the more we find out how important it is to our children’s development well past their first year of life.
According to anthropologist Katherine Dettwyler, data about our evolutionary past suggests human children are designed to receive all the benefits of nursing and breastmilk for a minimum of two and a half years, and as long as their first five to seven years. Fast paced lifestyles and modern conveniences have led to mothers expecting their children to meet many developmental milestones well before they are ready, and a general unwillingness to put up with the time and energy children truly need.
Children up to at least five and possibly as old as seven are developmentally inclined to nurse for both food and comfort. This emotional comforting bolsters children’s self esteem and independence. Additionally, it is a simple way to help sooth an upset child. Injuries, discomforts, and even long car rides are made tolerable by the loving comfort offered to children by their mother.
The health benefits of nursing are often touted for infants, but they don’t end there. The longer a child is nursed, the greater the benefits they receive from their mother. In fact, research indicates that as nursing decreases the health benefits condense within the milk. This offers older children that are eating solids just as great a boost in life as it did when they were babies. Nursing children have lower rates of diarrhea, respiratory problems, osteoporosis, childhood ear infections and malocclusion anomalies (misaligned teeth). Nursing mothers also have lower rates of breast cancer the longer they nurse, continuing well past the minimum one year medical professionals recommend.
The more research is completed, the more evidence there is that the longer a child breastfeeds, the higher that child’s IQ score and school grades will be. There is a clear impact on brain development in children that continue nursing past infancy and toddlerhood.
Nursing is always a tender, loving expression for mother and child. Even when older children “hit and run” nurse, they are receiving all of the comforts and benefits of a caring mother. This fosters trust and strengthens the bond between parent and child. Such nurturing deeply impacts the loving bond and future relationship between mother and child.
Other parents that are confident in their parenting styles will support you even if you make different choices. Unfortunately, such parents are rare. Families that chose forced detachment at an early age, for any reason, will often feel guilty for their own choices. Even uneducated strangers may confront you. They may seek to convince you to stop nurturing your child so they aren’t constantly faced to think about their choices. They are often personally offended that your family’s choices differ from their own. If you don’t have a supportive family or other support system, this can become a significant issue.
If the family has certain burdens, extended nursing can become more effort than it is worth. If mom has to work away from the child, pumping can be inconvenient at best. If one or more parent or siblings has health issues that require much of Mom’s attention, stopping to nurse or pump in addition can be too much to bare.
Mom and Dad were probably raised thinking that breastfeeding was a thing that newborns did. They may simply be unable to get past their own preconceived notions about nursing. After all, they’ve thought that way for a *very* long time. To many people, nursing an older child seems creepy, weird, or inappropriate. The idea of a child walking up to mom and asking to nurse seems just wrong. If parents just can’t overcome their assumptions, nursing will be uncomfortable and everyone in the family will feel it. It won’t be the loving bonding experience it was meant to be. It does still provide substantial health benefits, though, and pumping is worth considering. Something, however little, is better than nothing.
Extended nursing is clearly what nature or God intended for human children, but society’s habits have gotten in the way. It’s so uncommon for parents to allow this part of childhood that there is an incredible social stigma against parents that do. This stigma is so substantial that if parents are not either very confident in their choices, or very private about them, it can be damaging to the family. To those without the inclination or nerve to continue nursing their child until she is developmentally ready to wean, around 5 years old, I highly recommend pumping. Children are designed to receive the benefits of breastmilk. If you must withhold the psychological benefits, at least offer them as much of the physical benefits as you can.
These are a few tips for parents that choose extended nursing for their children.
– Privacy is often just as important to the older child as the parent. They may be very aware that other people don’t understand such a healthy relationship with Mom. Teach them early on to ask when they want to nurse, not to just lift Mom’s shirt up in public.
– If you are concerned with judgmental reactions, teach your child a codeword for nursing. This can be a fun little game for Mom and child, and will save you dealing with nosy strangers.
– Mom and child won’t feel as unusual if they know other extended nursers. If you don’t know any, contact the Le Leche League and ask about local support groups.
– Reading books and stories about or containing extended nursing will help normalize it. Both mom and child need to realize extended nursing is the most natural option, and not uncommon at all in many other cultures.