Breastfeeding Beyond a Year: Why Stop Now?
BabyC is fast approaching her first birthday, and I’ve been asked more than a few times, “How long do you plan to keep breastfeeding?”
When I first started thinking about this question, the scientist in me wondered about the health benefits of “extended” breastfeeding. I wrote about some of my research on the (purported) health benefits of nursing beyond a year last week. I plowed through hundreds of breastfeeding studies looking for some data on extended breastfeeding, but the truth is that very little research on this topic has been published, and almost nothing has been published on extended breastfeeding in the developed world. Please let me know if I missed something – just don’t send me links to La Leche League and KellyMom. I’ve seen their pages and tracked down all those citations, and I couldn’t find any convincing evidence that my child will be any less healthy or nourished or smart if I wean at a year. There could very well be health benefits to extended nursing, but as far as I can tell, they haven’t been described in the scientific literature. I doubt if that will change in the near future, since extended breastfeeding is probably not much of a research priority.
However, as I started delving into the research on this topic, I realized that the mother in me didn’t really care what the data said. I know, shocking, right? In this case, I just know that BabyC and I are both still enjoying breastfeeding, and I’m in no hurry to stop.
How long will we breastfeed? I don’t know. I haven’t been counting the days to her first birthday so that we can meet the AAP recommendation, but I’m not planning to breastfeed her until kindergarten either. I’ve heard that many babies wean themselves within the first couple of years of life, and my hope is that BabyC will stop nursing when she’s ready. But if BabyC doesn’t make that choice herself, there will come a time when I will be ready to stop. I admit the thought crosses my mind during some nursing sessions when BabyC is intent on fish-hooking my mouth with her finger and beating on my chest.
But I’m not ready yet. I love nursing BabyC. She is not a particularly snuggly baby. She prefers to be on the go. Even when she is exhausted, she will rarely rest her head on my shoulder. Rather, exhaustion seems to compel her to throw her body around wildly. So our moments of nursing are often our only snuggly times together. It is the time when we both stop moving. I drop whatever I am intent on accomplishing, and she settles into my lap. It is our time to reconnect, talk or sing quietly, and study each other. When she’s done, BabyC will pop up, smile at me, and start babbling happily, looking refreshed and ready to play again. I imagine that I will value this time even more as BabyC enters toddlerhood, as I’m anticipating her to move faster and farther away, asserting the independence that I see growing in her. I think she will value being able to come back to our quiet place together, too, but I admit that nursing is as much for me as it is for her. She will grow up way too fast as it is, so why rush it now?
As to the potential health benefits, a few have been mentioned to me anecdotally through comments on my previous post and conversations on Facebook and Twitter. Several mamas have said that breast milk worked great as a treatment for conjunctivitis (pink eye), so it may be useful to have available if we get hit with that. (I wrote about the science behind this here.) Others have mentioned that a toddler sick with a cold or stomach bug may not feel like eating or drinking much, but she will often still nurse. Breastfeeding a sick child could help keep her hydrated and nourished and might help her recover faster (though I couldn’t find studies on that either). These are all bonuses to me.
BabyC just recently started signing for “milk” when she wants to nurse, although she usually just makes the sign at our normal nursing times. I LOVE that she has started signing. It means that she can ask for something calmly, without crying or whining, and she LOVES that she gets what she wants (most of the time). I’ve heard many people say that it is time to stop breastfeeding once the child can ask for it. This makes me laugh, because even though BabyC just learned to ask for milk with a sign, she’s been asking for it from Day 1. The language that she uses to make that request is evolving, but it is all the same to me. And for now, I’m happy to oblige.