Toddler Moms Debunk Extended Breastfeeding Myths
Breastfeeding moms of toddlers respond to common breastfeeding misconceptions about nursing past infancy:
Myth: Breastfeeding will ruin your boobs!
Truth: Your breasts will inflate through your pregnancy and engorgement when your milk comes whether your nurse your babies or not! Vanity has been known to get the best of me. I’ll admit it. I’ll even confess that some decisions I made about my health might have been motivated by said vanity, said the girl who quit smoking in her youth when she realized it would ruin her skin before it ravaged her lungs. If you fall in to the camp of women that occasionally puts a little too much focus on the outside instead of the inside, you’ll be glad to know that breastfeeding your kids is not responsible for your boobs going South! Gravity and the swelling of the breasts during pregnancy and engorgement take the greatest toll on the skin responsible for holding those big, beautiful mammaries in place -- and there is no escaping that! So, go ahead and do a few push ups and nurse your kiddos! Throw in some chest presses with a five pound hand weight, and those gorgeous boobs that are a cup size bigger than normal will be back front and center where you like them before you know it.
Myth: Extended nursing will create a co-dependent, needy child.
Truth: Letting your child wean on their own time fosters independence! A child that reconnects with their mother regularly and believes that they can always come back to the safety of a parent is far more likely to boldly step out on their own. Weaning becomes an act that the child participated in achieving. I can recall sending my daughter off to her first day of school. Anticipating a little bit of anxiety on her part (and holding back my own tears) I said “Go ahead, big girl. Mommy will be right here after school.” Off she went, secure in the knowledge that she can return to me.
Obviously, nursing is not the only way to create an environment of loving kindness. But for many families, it is the cornerstone of the mother-child bond. Regular (albeit brief as anyone who has ever seen a busy toddler drive-by nursing can attest to!) breastfeeding of a toddler gives both the child and the mother a perfect opportunity to stop and reconnect, re-affirm in a biological way the connection between mother and child. This affirmation gives the child confidence to move forward.
The proof is in the pudding, as they say. Here’s a picture of my independent daughter taking off on her first day of school. She never
looked back. And as for the first myth? Stop by and see me at Excitement on the Side. You’ll see my boobs if you hang around awhile.
- Kelly from excitementontheside.com
Myth: Breastfeeding past a certain age is sexual.
As a nursing mother who advocates child-led weaning, I have encountered my fair share of myths about extended breastfeeding, ranging from mildly amusing to downright frightening. One of the most ridiculous myths I’ve encountered is the idea that once a child reaches a certain age (often 1 or 2 years), breastfeeding stops being about child nourishment and bonding, and becomes an inappropriate act with sexual connotations. Even more concerning is the archaic (and insultingly unfounded) theory that a mother who nurses beyond 2 is compromising her child’s sexual development in some aspect. And by far, the most offensive and absurd manifestation of the myth is that breastfeeding a toddler is equal to sexual abuse/incest.
Sadly, I believe that the old “perception is reality” adage applies here; if a person declares something as sexual, then for them, it is sexual. After all, some adults are turned on by the act of diapering another adult, an act that is definitely not inherently sexual. So, in our western world, a culture wherein breasts are highly sexualized, it isn’t surprising that the act of extended breastfeeding is seen as sexual by so many people. It isn’t shocking that mothers who nurse toddlers in the US are ridiculed and scorned, in spite of the fact that the majority of human beings on our planet breastfeed beyond age 1, and that the average age for a child to wean naturally is between 3-5 years. Most of the naysayers, when met with facts and education about the realities of extended breastfeeding, still view it as shocking and disgusting. But the bottom line is, it doesn’t matter if one person or one billion people share an opinion; their combined opinions do not form a fact. There is nothing inherently sexual about breastfeeding.
So, how does a nursing mother go about debunking such baseless absurdity? It can indeed prove to be an exercise in futility. It has been my unfortunate experience that people who think extended breastfeeding is “weird,” do not have open minds and are not receptive to learning anything that might expose their point of view as irrational and inane. But I am always willing to offer a person links to literature that endorses extended breastfeeding -- literature which comes from highly respected and reputable doctors (such as Dr. Bill Sears), anthropologists (such as Katherine A. Dettwyler, Ph.D), health organizations (i.e. WHO), numerous medical journals, etc. However, my favorite factoid to pass along is that, to date, there is NO research or data that points to breastfeeding a toddler as being a damaging act, sexually, or otherwise. So, what most effectively debunks the “nursing a toddler is sexually inappropriate” myth is what is not there to begin with -- a shred of evidence to back the claim.
- Elizabeth Daniels, Brandon FL
Myth: It’s not necessary to nurse past one year because breast milk loses its nutritional value.
Reality: Not true. Not even a little true. Actually the opposite is true! Immune benefits actually increase the older the child gets. Breast milk changes and adjusts as your baby grows. Condensing the nutritional properties of your milk and the immune benefits into the amount of milk you make. You know, like how a shot of espresso in your thirties does the work that the seventeen cups of coffee did in your twenties. So as solid food becomes the more prominent part of your little one’s diet, breast milk condenses all of the health benefits into the less milk they do consume. It’s magic really. I love the fact that when one of my kids or I get sick, my milk is already transferring immune boosting bits of awesome and helping them fight their colds. But if you weren’t sold at “bits of awesome,” you can read about all this in more specific and intellectual language. And also here at Kellymom.
Issue: Breastfeeding mothers who think it’s weird/inappropriate/gross to nurse a child past a certain age.
I’ve heard this one a lot. A mom says, “I love breastfeeding! It was so awesome. But a two year old? A three year old? That’s weird.” Just this week, my baby boy turned three. He nurses about once a day. Sometimes twice. He decides when. It is almost always when he is very tired or hurt. The times when he needs comfort and closeness. There have been many times that I thought he had weaned but, nope, he’s not ready yet. And that’s ok. When I first decided to nurse my children I thought I would wean them at one. I thought that is what you were supposed to do. But on the night of my son’s first birthday, as I nursed him to sleep, I saw him comforted and safe. Still a baby. Still needing to nurse. I was sure in that moment I would let him decide when to wean.
But then, I got pregnant. He weaned during my pregnancy with his sister because he was frustrated that my milk was gone. It was traumatic for him and it broke my heart. He was 18 months old. When the milk returned and his baby sister came to be with us, he would watch as I nursed her and he seemed sad. I offered to nurse him. He nursed. He looked up to me and he smiled. And that moment is one I will never forget. His relief erasing the sadness of his first weaning. So the idea that this beautiful experience with my baby boy is seen as gross or weird just makes me sad.
And to be honest, it makes me angry too. Every child is different. And every mother is different. No child can be expected to follow the same growth, development, or same anything of another child. Some children are ready to go to Kindergarten at four and half, some five, others at six. Everyone understands that. So then why would weaning be any different? There is no set age for when a child will naturally wean. My son is nursing less this month than he did last month. He seems to be doing just fine in determining when he is ready. He’ll get there. In his time. And it makes me happy to know that when he does wean, it will be on his terms.
For more information on weaning, you can start at the La Leche League.
-Colleen from The Adventures of Family Pants
Myth: Once a child reaches a certain age, they should be given pumped breastmilk from a cup.
Coming from a place where I struggled throughout my breastfeeding journey to maintain my milk supply, it’s laughable to me when people comment that once my daughter turned one, that she no longer needed to breastfeed straight from “tap,” but rather, I should be pumping and giving her breast milk in a cup. The only party this benefits is, well, the people it makes uncomfortable to watch me nurse my toddler. Pumping is not an easy job.
Breastfeeding is the easiest, formula feeding is harder, pumping is the hardest. Breast milk comes straight from the breast, is the perfect temperature, and the perfect amount per feeding. Formula comes mostly prepared, just add water (although there is washing, sterilizing bottles, and mixing the formula). Pumping takes a lot of time and energy to produce the right amount of milk, heating it to the perfect temperature, PLUS all the bottle washing, sterilizing all the components of a pump, and adhering to the very specific rules of proper storing.
Then there are the potential issues you can run into like I did. I had to return to work when my daughter was 4-months-old. I pumped at work three times a day and since I have always dealt with low supply, I struggled to maintain a milk supply to supplement the time I was away from home. It’s not as easy as putting cones on your breasts and turning a machine on and the milk just comes pouring out. It is a very intricate process that left me drained at the end of the day and wishing I could toss that machine in the trash.
I suppose to really understand why pumping is not an easy task, you must first understand how our breasts function during breastfeeding. Prolactin must be present for milk synthesis to occur. When the breast is full, prolactin cannot enter the prolactin receptors, so the rate of milk synthesis decreases. When the breast is emptied, prolactin can now pass through the receptors and milk synthesis increases. This is now where I make my point: PUMPING DOES NOT EFFECTIVELY REMOVE MILK FROM THE BREAST LIKE A CHILD DOES. When the breast is not properly being emptied often, milk supply dramatically decreases. In order to maintain an efficient supply to pump and then give in a cup, one would spend their entire day attached to a machine. It is just more logical to nurse directly from the breast than to struggle to maintain a supply just to make a few people more comfortable. Besides, if I’m nursing in my own home (seeing as how most toddlers nurse only a handful of times a day or less -- that number drops even more the older they get), who does nursing my toddler affect? No one, except my nursling and me.
**Jamie’s note: Courtney beautifully summed up the stress of pumping and how it does not always work with our anatomy. This myth bugs me so much I thought I’d chime in, too. Breastfeeding has much more to offer than *just* nutritional value. Breastfeeding also serves a way to comfort, bond, and build emotional attachment with your child (this is not the only way to bond and attach, but it is definitely one of many). Would you hug your child using a machine or your own arms? Breastfeeding should not be avoided just because someone else does not understand it. **
Myth: If you breastfeed your baby past infancy they will not learn to eat enough solid foods.
I know a lot of people think that extended (after 6 months, after 12 months after any one of a number of ages) nursing will mean a baby/child will not eat enough solid food. I have heard pediatricians tell moms whose 8-month-olds are not excited by solids to cut out a nursing session or two. I can totally see why people would think this. If a couple of assumptions our society makes were true, then this would be reasonable. But those assumptions are flawed. Assumption number one, all babies do things on a set schedule. Assumption number two, nursing is just about food.
Assumption 1. Babies do everything on their own schedule, the range of normal is massive. A baby can be just fine and walk at 9 months or at 13. A baby can start speaking at one year or two. And a baby might love solids at 6 months (and may indicate readiness by pulling your food off your plate and stuffing it into their mouth) or be resistant and just experiment until they are 18 months. There are a lot of nursing moms who find their kids take to solids with great gusto and there are a lot of formula feeding moms who are still giving their younger toddler most of their calories that way. My personal experience is a mostly formula fed kiddo who only really started eating for calories at about 16 months and a nursing little one who ate larger servings than her big brother by the time she was 8-months-old. She is still nursing at two and a half. And she still eats more than he does many days (he is 4).
Assumption 2. Babies nurse for food, for comfort, for immunities, for cuddle time, for a whole bunch of reasons. Nursing keeps happening even when babies are getting most of their nutrition from food, it just doesn’t happen every hour for 45 minutes like it does with newborns (or no mother could cope). It happens in “drive by” sessions here and there throughout the day. Or as one nursing session while they fall asleep (or when they hurt themselves). Or in a number of other scenarios. The time frame for each child is different but I know a lot of mothers nursing 2-(and up)-year-olds and no-one is nursing them 8 times a day.
So babies can nurse into toddlerhood and eat solid food.
Myth: Nursing beyond infancy is more about the mother’s needs, than the child’s.
Of the many misconceptions that I have heard about toddler nursing, this is one that has me scratching my head the most. It’s one I hear with increasing frequency. That mothers who do not wean their children by a certain deadline are worried more about their own needs and attempt to artificially prolong dependency.
Anyone who has ever tried to cajole an unwilling toddler into doing… well, anything… knows it’s not an easy task. Even something as simple as managing three meals a day can be an epic battle. “Let’s eat dinner.” “NO!” A child who is ready to wean will not continue to nurse. However, a mother may continue to nurse her child beyond her predicted timeline when she sees that it is still important to the well being of her individual child. Clearly, it is not a matter of an unwilling child continuing to nurse to meet mom’s needs.
People will say it’s about independence and discipline -- that nursing mothers fail to discipline the child to become independent because the mother wishes to have him dependent as long as possible. So, the thinking is that in order to meet a child’s needs, mom must push him towards independence by weaning even if he isn’t ready? Couldn’t this be construed as mom trying to force her will to have an “independent” child to meet her own needs? Why can’t we just assume that as parents we are ALL trying to meet our children’s needs in the best way we know how?
Children don’t go from infant to big kid overnight; it is a slow process. And emerging independence is a part of that process. As parents, we look for the cues from our individual children. For some of us, that includes when a child is ready to wean. And yes, mom’s needs are considered, although typically that means setting limits on nursing over time to achieve a balance between a need for space and a child’s need to nurse. It’s really not any different than any other element of the parent-child relationship over the course of childhood.
Photo Credit: Pusteblumenland.