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. Sarah

    Beautiful photo! I wish I had one of Eleanor and me. Our nursing relationship ended when she was 19 months. I had to go out of town for a few days. When I got home, she was in bed and frantically nursed most of the night. The next day, she was finished; I was with her and that was enough for her. I was sad but followed her lead. Keep it up Mama!

    • Dionna   CodeNameMama

      Thank you! I have a really beautiful picture of Kieran nursing at about 6 months old (when we got engagement pics done).
      19 months is wonderful! That is what I want to do someday – follow Kieran’s lead.

  2. Tatiana

    Vow! Loved your post. My 11 m.o. also “dances” to my milk when she wants breastfeeding. It’s just so cute :)

  3. Hannah VW   HaRae

    My son signed milk at about 9 months old, and at that time he was also walking independently. Although I had planned to breastfeed for a while and was open to going beyond a year, I don’t think I had realized very much what it would be like. Since my “baby” became a “toddler” so early it helped me ease into it. By the time he was a year I knew that walking or talking had nothing to do with his need for my milk.

    I have always avoided using the term “extended” breastfeeding. I figure that 37 weeks of pregnancy is considered full-term, but no one refers to those of us that go to 39 weeks or 40 weeks and a few days as “extended pregnancy-ers” (although after 40 weeks we may start getting comments on why don’t we just induce labor).

    • Dionna   CodeNameMama

      I prefer full-term or ecological breastfeeding. Hobo Mama had a really great discussion about the terminology awhile ago – I will dig that up for you if you’re interested!

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