Mama Milk Dance!

December 1st, 2009 by Dionna | 50 Comments
Posted in Breastfeeding/Lactivism, Compassionate Advocacy, Feed with Love and Respect, Just for Fun/Miscellaneous, My Family, natural parenting

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A member of an online community forum recently asked: “Do you think toddlers are too old to nurse?” What followed was a variety of disapproving comments regarding breastfeeding in general and “extended” (better known as “full term”) breastfeeding in particular.

I joined the community in order to educate the ill-informed and defend those champions of lactation – the mamas who give their babies breastmilk beyond one year. I dug up some research on breastfeeding past infancy; found links and statistics; and attempted to write something coherent. (It’s hard to be coherent, though, when my almost two year old often climbs onto my lap, dives for my nursing tank top, and does scissor kicks somewhere between my body and the keyboard.) Below is an expanded version of what I posted in response.

Health Benefits to Children and Mothers

In addition to the myriad of health benefits to mother and child from breastfeeding for even a short time period (1), there are even more health benefits when mothers continue breastfeeding beyond one year. Here are only a few examples of the benefits to children and mothers, all established by credible research:

*“Nursing toddlers between the ages of 16 and 30 months have been found to have fewer illnesses and illnesses of shorter duration than their non-nursing peers.” (2)
*“Antibodies are abundant in human milk throughout lactation. In fact, some of the immune factors in breastmilk increase in concentration during the second year and also during the weaning process.” (3)
*There is “a significant inverse association between duration of lactation and breast cancer risk.” (4)
*Breastfeeding beyond one year “can reduce your risk of ovarian cancer by about one-third.” (5)
*“[T]he longer a woman breastfeeds, the less likely she is to get endometrial cancer.” (6)

Breastfeeding Toddlers is Normal

Much of the criticism toward extended breastfeeding has nothing to do with health and everything to do with cultural biases. Many disagree with nursing a toddler who “can ask for it (or who have teeth),” or “when it’s just used as a comfort.”

Such comments reveal the writers’ own discomfort; they are not grounded in fact. Disapproval based on comfort level is not a logical basis for discouraging mothers from breastfeeding for any length of time.

Mothers have historically nursed into toddlerhood. In fact “the median age of weaning throughout the world is between ages three and five [years].” (7) Because breastfeeding is “a heavily culturized activity, it is” influenced by the current beliefs and attitudes regarding “infant health and nutrition, . . . the nature of human infancy and the proper relationships between mother and child, and between mother and father.” (8)

Those who condemn nursing a child who is “old enough to ask for it” operate under the illusion that the breast’s primary purpose is sexual. Most people wouldn’t raise an eyebrow at giving a toddler a bottle (which is a breast substitute), or at hugging or cuddling a toddler; why should breastfeeding be different? All are forms of affection. A toddler does not see a breast as sexual, nor should anyone who happens to view the nursing relationship.

The argument that breastfeeding should be discontinued after it is “more comfort than nutrition” is similarly misguided. Aside from the established health benefits of nursing a toddler, it makes no sense to take away a food source just because it does not meet every nutritional need.

“We don’t say that children should stop eating bananas once bananas are no longer a significant part of their diet. Bananas eaten once in a while are as nutritious as bananas eaten three times a day. In fact, you might even consider the rarely eaten banana to be more important nutritionally. Why do we not see that the same is true of human milk?” (9)

Nursing My Own Toddler

In responding to the forum query and in writing this post, I examined my own reasons for continuing to nurse my son.

Nothing can soothe my toddler’s bumped head or broken heart more effectively than breastfeeding. Nursing provides Kieran security and comfort when he is feeling sad, unsure or overwhelmed. And, quite simply, we both enjoy our nursing relationship.

If I hadn’t nursed beyond one year, I would have never been able to enjoy Kieran’s impish grin before his inevitable toddler nursing gymnastics; the request for “mama milk dance!” as we swept across our living room dance floor; or waking up to his big blue eyes locked onto mine as he hugged my chest and sleepily murmured “love mama milk.”

These tender moments are memories I would never trade, and Kieran’s comfort and happiness far outweigh any possible criticism about extended breastfeeding.

Nursing my toddler

Inspire Natural Parenting Contest
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(1) See “101 Reasons to Breastfeed Your Child,” http://www.promom.org/101/ (and citations therein) for some of the significant health benefits to children and mothers from even a few months of breastfeeding.
(2) “Extended Breastfeeding Fact Sheet” (citing Gulick, E. The Effects of Breastfeeding on Toddler Health, Ped Nursing 1986 Jan-Feb;12(1):51-4)
(3) Extended Breastfeeding Fact Sheet (citing Goldman AS. et al., Immunologic Components in Human Milk During Weaning, Acta Paediatr Scand. 1983 Jan;72(1):133-4; Goldman, A., Goldblum R.M., Garza C., Immunologic Components in Human Milk During the Second Year of Lactation, Acta Paediatr Scand 1983 May;72(3):461-2; Hamosh M, Dewey, Garza C, et al: Nutrition During Lactation. Institute of Medicine, Washington, DC, National Academy Press, 1991, pp. 133-140)
Toddlers who nurse also have fewer allergies, are smarter, and are well-adjusted socially. (see Extended Breastfeeding Fact Sheet and related citations)
(4) Extended Breastfeeding Fact Sheet (citations available at http://www.kellymom.com/bf/bfextended/ebf-refs.html#BreastCancer1)
(5) 101 Reasons to Breastfeed Your Child, (citing Hartage et al, “Rates and risks of ovarian cancer in subgroups of white women in the United States.” Obstet Gynecol 1994 Nov; 84(5): 760-764; Rosenblatt KA, Thomas DB, “Lactation and the risk of Epithelial ovarian cancer”. Int J Epidemiol. 1993;22:192-197; Gwinn ML, “Pregnancy, breastfeeding and oral contraceptives and the risk of Epithelial ovarian cancer.” J. Clin. Epidemiol. 1990; 43:559-568)
(6) 101 Reasons to Breastfeed Your Child (citing Rosenblatt, KA et al “Prolonged lactation and endometrial cancer” Int. J. Epidemiol. 1995; 24:499-503)
(7) “Breastfeeding Beyond a Year: Exploring Benefits, Cultural Influences, and More,”
http://www.llli.org/NB/NBSepOct07p196.html (citing Huggins, K. The Nursing Mother’s Guide to Weaning, Boston, MA: Harvard Common Press, 2007)
(8) Breastfeeding Beyond a Year: Exploring Benefits, Cultural Influences, and More (quoting Dettwyler, K.A. “A Time to Wean” in Breastfeeding: Biocultural Perspectives, Hawthorne, NY: Aldine de Gruyter, 1995)
(9) “Comfort Versus Nutrition,” http://www.breastfeeding.org.sg/comfort-versus-nutrition-by-kathryn-orlinsky.html

50 Responses to:
"Mama Milk Dance!"

  1. Nikki

    Great post, Dionna! You know I agree with all of it. :)

    Hey – is Kieran signing “daddy” in that picture?

  2. Thanks for keeping me inspired. As Hazel approaches her 2nd birthday, the comments are rolling in deep re: weaning. It’s driving me insane. Why mess up a good thing? Nurse on!

  3. Andrea

    I, too, have been a bit perplexed by the fact that it’s referred to as “extended” nursing when it’s such a natural, normal thing. If I tried to wean now, at 13 months, it would be traumatic for both of us since he’s still nursing 5-7 times a day and is not shy about letting me know when he wants it by pulling on my shirt or giving me the “milk” sign. You’re absolutely right, there’s no quicker way to dry tears than to nurse, hands down. I also find that there’s an assumption by people who don’t understand or aren’t familiar with extended nursing that I should switch him from milk made for baby humans to milk made for baby cows. It just makes no sense. I think that more than anything it’s just lack of knowledge and fear of the unfamiliar.

    Did you read that article in Mothering Magazine a few months back? It was about nursing in Mongolia. It was a really beautiful article.

  4. Kellie   MindfulLifeShop

    I agree, wholeheartedly! I nursed Sofi until she was almost 3. At that point, tandem nursing just got to be too much for me. But as I crawled into bed next to her last night, I held her sleeping body and told my husband how I missed her sleeping in our bed, and how I miss nursing her. She still tries to “sneak into the milk facta-ee” every now and again and cracks me up when I am nursing her brother.

  5. Dionna   CodeNameMama

    Nikki – yes, he was signing “papa” (or daddy, depending on what you call the father figure in your house). We were out on a hike for my birthday, and this was a nursing pit stop in the middle of the woods. He was probably signing “papa” since Tom was standing overhead with the camera.

    Melissa – I totally agree! I think it’s just foreign to people who haven’t been there. It’s up to us to normalize it :)

    Andrea – I wanted to talk about why it shouldn’t be called “extended” breastfeeding, but I had to keep my post under 800 words (that was difficult for me – ha!). It should be “normal” breastfeeding, sadly that is not the case in our country. And yes, I did read and love that article on bf’ing in Mongolia!
    Also, did you know that breastmilk contains endorphins, which is why it actually helps reduce pain?! Incredible.

    Kellie – I wonder when Kieran or I will be ready to end our breastfeeding relationship. In researching this post I came across one person’s article that said something to the effect of “mamas need to remember that the nursing relationship is a two way street. If mama is no longer comfortable in the relationship, her side needs to be considered too. There is no trophy for who can nurse the longest.”
    That’s so true!

  6. Melodie   bfmom

    I’m sending this to my cousin who recently asked me if I could provide her some information on why a person should breastfeed past a year. I’ve been meaning to write a post for her (and everyone else who might want to know) but with being extra busy these past few weeks I just haven’t sat down and done it. Thanks for saving me the work and for all the references you provide. So helpful! I have found the biggest benefit to breastfeeding past a year is the comfort and connection you continue to provide for your child. Breastfeeding isn’t just about nutrition, it’s a way of parenting (at least it can be for those who want it to). Thanks again for your post and good luck in the contest!

  7. jenny ellis-rhea

    thank you for stating how i feel so poetically. i am thrilled to share your post with the eyebrow raising mama’s out there!

    • Dionna   CodeNameMama

      Thank you, Jenny! It’s funny how normal it becomes as you are living it. I remember wanting to breastfeed “for a year”; then it became “for two years”; now it’s just as long as the relationship is working for both of us.

  8. raegan

    great post. i certainly hope you encouraged at least one of those other mamas to keep breastfeeding regardless of what others may think. our culture has so oversexualized women and children that we have lost sight of the beauty of such an amazing, natural event. (much like birth, but that’s a whole other rant, right? ;) )

    my 4y8m old son nursed yesterday, in fact, and i know he’s going to wean soon, so i cherish every time we nurse together. of course, my 1y8m old son has to get in on the action, too–and watching them stare lovingly at one another and me, holding hands, caressing arms…it’s priceless.

    thanks for writing such a great blog–all your posts rock, dionna! :)

    • Dionna   CodeNameMama

      That is high praise coming from you, mama! You are such a voice of reason about natural birth and parenting choices – you should blog more!! I would definitely read.

  9. I love that Nikki knew he was signing ‘papa!’ hehe

    More than any amount of facts, the most convincing thing for me has been seeing your nursing relationship with Kieran. The amount of solace and love that is involved in a relationship that has been proven to be so nutritionally beneficial has me convinced. I am full on board the ‘extended’ nursing bandwagon.

    • Dionna   CodeNameMama

      I’m lucky to have found a community of friends who support and practice natural, healthy parenting choices, but I’m even luckier that my best friend will do the same thing someday :)

  10. DT

    Perhaps you people don’t read other blogs, but replies are for disparaging comments, poor syntax, and first-grade spelling. Alright, I’ll join the love fest. Nice post, and even better citation.

  11. Mom

    First of all, I am a little concerned, I think that Tammy has a stalker…first he was right behind her at my Xanga and now here he is again!!! Should we be concerned??? :-)
    As I read your blog I found myself remembering how much I loved the nursing relationship that I had with you and with Shawna and Tammy. It was even more unusual then, than it is now, to nurse for more than a few weeks or months. I am sure that I was looked at a “strange” for nursing each of you until you were a year old. I even got some pretty unkind comments from family members!!! I love watching you and Kieran together, whether you are nursing or reading to him, teaching him something new in the kitchen or just cuddling. I love the relationship that I see between you and Kieran and I love how supportive Tom is of that special relationship!!!
    I have already told you how proud I am of what wonderful parents both of you are to my precious Kieran!! I love you!!!

    • Dionna   CodeNameMama

      I’ve gotten a few comments from family members, but I think they have since decided to put up with my nursing in public tendencies ;) Hopefully seeing me nurse Kieran will have normalized it in their eyes. It’s up to nursing mamas to remove the taboo from breastfeeding, which is why I’m so adamant about it!

  12. Cheryl Lewis

    Lovely comments bringing back lovely memories. Both of my girls nursed for just a bit longer than 24 months each. Since they are 25 months apart…..I would not give anything in my life for those 4 years.
    Poor Daddy was always so embarrassed when his daughters would wander in wanting “nummi-nummi”. I can remember when Bill stopped taking Playboy when our first daughter opened the centerfold and exclaimed “Nummi-Nummi”!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I was extremely lucky with my pediatrician. Of course, he was not from America, and believed nursing is the only way to go. I get so sad when I see women who can barely afford to put food on the table, spending money on formula…….but that would be another blog area……I could afford to get my girls anything they wanted; and I never ever purchased a single bottle or can of formula baby cereal (they can’t digest it for pete’s sake) or baby food–baby food, just blend up a serving of meatloaf, green beans, potatoes, with a bit of nummi nummi and bingo, food for the beginning eater.
    In fact, my teachings are so believed by my own daughter, that when it turned out her first born had to say in the nicu for 6 months; she pumped so he would have all of the benefits of breast milk. He got it in a drip; and she pumped so successfully, that she provided milk to the Austin milk bank at record donation levels….When I looked at the picture, it looks as if the baby is signing Daddy, at least that’s when I thought when I saw it, as that is how my grandson signed for Daddy.
    Long term benefits; both of my girls were very healthy youngsters, not so many colds, and they have never been fussy eaters………..
    Thanks for the memories…..

    • Dionna   CodeNameMama

      Cheryl, your post just made me laugh out loud (I can just imagine Kieran’s eyes bulging out if he saw a Playboy).
      And I am SO impressed by your daughter’s pumping and milk bank record! The devotion of pumping mamas is nothing less than inspirational (and how much more selfless to pump for a child that isn’t even yours).
      Thank you for stopping by :) (and yes, Kieran was signing for his daddy, or “papa,” as we call him around here)

  13. Jenny O.

    Moms,

    I have never had a child by birth, so I do not have experience with this subject, but I did want to “chime in”. I do know that Mom’s love their babies, and always do what is best for them. Most Mom’s instinctively know what is best for their babies. Whatever societal norms are, a Mom who is doing what she knows is best for her child should be proud and continue keeping her child healthy. May God bless you and keep you and your children!

    • Dionna   CodeNameMama

      Your comments are always welcome :) I know breastfeeding moms cherish the support of anyone willing to give it – birth mothers or otherwise.

  14. Amy

    I agree! Eli is still nursing, too! As you’ve read on KCAP, night nursing is getting difficult some nights…he’s so active while sleeping and I often end up with pulled hair and a foot in my back or tummy. We’ll see how it goes, though. I enjoy reading your blog, Dionna….helps keep me on track on days I need it (like today) :) Good to see you at Toddler Town…next time we should actually talk! :)

    • Dionna   CodeNameMama

      Thank you, Amy! I appreciate you reading :) And you’re right – next time we have to talk. I felt like one of us always started to chase an errant toddler any time we were close enough to make contact ;)
      And I understand how frustrating night nursing can be. I feel like I have it better than some nursing mamas b/c Kieran sleeps with us, and I can sleep through his night nursings (for the most part). But we go through spurts where he’ll get wild or wake and wiggle early, etc. So far, my “this too shall pass” attitude has gotten us through, but I can see the allure of night weaning ;) We just aren’t ready for it yet.

  15. Heather   xakana

    Awesome post, Dionna! You had too many comments for me to really read them all, but as I was scrolling down to make my own mark, I saw someone mention “Why is it called extended nursing?” In fact, not everyone calls it this and like any other inappropriate terminology, I’ve dropped it from my vocabulary, so when I see it, it’s strange to me now. Many people who practice it now call it “Full term nursing” which is more appropriate (although only if continued until the child is done nursing or at least until an appropriate biological milestone is reached–such as losing baby, or “milk” teeth).

    I used to plan to nurse 2 years because that’s how long I was nursed as a baby and then I found that it was recommended as the minimum nursing length. But the more I studied and understood biological breastfeeding, the more I leaned toward child-led weaning. And yes, all children will wean on their own, lol.

    I’m currently nursing a 3 year old and an 11 month old. If you had told me I’d be doing that 3 1/2 years ago, I’d have been very confused as to why I’d do that, lol!

    Alas, I no longer attempt to be the voice of support in mainstream American groups, as years of it with the same repeating cycle was just too discouraging. Now I only make an effort for people actively seeking help/support/information. It’s unbelievable the amount of negativity people can harbor against someone else following nature’s cues :(

    • Dionna   CodeNameMama

      Thanks Heather! You know what’s funny, I only saw the term “full term nursing” for the first time in researching this post. I’ve thought (for the past two years anyway) that “extended breastfeeding” was a poor choice of words too, and it surprised me that there was another (better) phrase that I hadn’t heard about (surprised b/c of who my friends are lol).

  16. Pat

    Dionna, please you for following Biblical guidelines in caring for Kieran. Breastfeeding is such an amazing way to keep babies healthy and bonding with our children. God bless you. Pat

  17. I love the job my boobs do, and I have three happy and healthy children to thank them for ;)

  18. Melinda

    Awesome post, Dionna.

  19. Thank you for this, very well written. Even though nursing is considered the healthiest option, oftentimes we are made to feel like we are eccentric for continuing to provide a healthful option for our children.

  20. Great post Dionna. I breastfed my oldest for 11months, 3 weeks and 3 days…before we left for a vacation without him. My youngest is 11 months and I’m not ready to think about stopping. I know that my family and friends will think I’m ‘weird’ but I don’t want to end this bond. It will be our last child and it’s such a special time between a mother and child.

    • Dionna   CodeNameMama

      A friend recently told me how bittersweet it is for her – she’s in the same position you are, nursing her last baby. Since I’m unsure of whether we’ll be able have another baby, I can definitely empathize!

  21. Just wanted to say thanks :) It is great to know that there is support out there for us mum’s who want to continue to breastfeed past infancy.

  22. Abby

    Thank you for writing this! I agree and am very thankful for my nursing relationship with my 26 month old. It is the most beautiful, natural thing in the world.

  23. Amber   AmberStrocel

    Well said, I agree completely! Toddler nursing is really a great thing, and I firmly believe it has helped me to parent both of my children in the way that works best for us.

    The argument about stopping when a child is old enough to ‘ask for it’ has always struck me as particularly bizarre. My newborns asked to nurse, just not in words. So, where do you even draw that line? It just doesn’t make sense to me. Plus, it’s arbitrarily based on a child’s verbal abilities, which can vary dramatically from child to child. The whole statement just does not make any sense to me on close examination.

    • Dionna   CodeNameMama

      I know! I originally had something in this post about how Kieran originally “asked” to nurse by rooting or crying, after almost a year he “asked” to nurse by signing “mama’s milk,” and now he can “ask” for mama’s milk using spoken words. Nothing has changed!
      The same thing can be said for “when they get teeth” – babies get teeth at all different ages. It makes no sense to set that as some guideline for forced weaning.

      • Heather   xakana

        Another dumb thing about the “asking” thing is that Naomi could sign milk at 4 months. Seriously, I’m not weaning my four month old because she’s learned to communicate in a way that isn’t crying. Punishing communication anyone?

  24. What a fabulous post! It always bugs me when people have issues with extended breastfeeding (or breastfeeding in general). Babies are not born with bottles but their Mothers have with milk producing breasts… coincidence? Anyways, I quite enjoyed reading this. Good for you for breastfeeding your son for as long as you have.

  25. Sara   smola04

    Amen!

    I honestly cannot imagine parenting without nursing – it’s one of the best tools I have in my “parenting toolbox.” Especially as my 18mo son begins going through the trials of toddlerhood, I’m so thankful that we still have that close nursing relationship.

    • Dionna   CodeNameMama

      I completely agree! I don’t know what I would have done without it for the past two years, but especially when Kieran was newborn. We’ve never had truly sleepless nights, because I just nurse Kieran right in bed. So easy!

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