by Mary Jessica Hammes
August 19, 2010
Maybe I’m doing this backwards.
Recently I shared my experience of weaning my son. But let me back up and tell you why I decided to breastfeed my son for three years in the first place.
For starters, the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends breastfeeding until a child is at least 2 years old and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends women breastfeed for at least one year and beyond, as breast milk protects infants and young children against infectious diseases and boosts their neurodevelopment. It also provides many health benefits for mothers. I knew this and I took their advice. But in the U.S., only around 22 percent of women breastfeed for even one year.
Statistically, I guess that makes me a bit of an outsider, but it doesn’t feel that way in my neck of the woods, a culturally and politically progressive college town. Here, many mothers I know have breastfed well into toddlerhood. My family was universally supportive of my breastfeeding choices (after all, my own mother nursed me for two years, and my sister and sister-in-law nursed their children, so I was hardly blazing trails). When my mother-in-law occasionally asked if I was still nursing Tommy, she was simply getting another update on his life, not craftily suggesting that we quit.
And I had the unique privilege of writing about breastfeeding for a living, so I was well-acquainted with all the immunological benefits of not just breastfeeding, but specifically extended breastfeeding. Benefits for mom: protection against heart attacks, type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, rheumatoid arthritis, and breast, uterine, and ovarian cancer. And for baby: extended breastfeeding provides additional immunological and nutritional benefits.
It wasn’t my specific intention to nurse that long. I remember very clearly thinking, “I’m going to try to make it to a year.” Then a year came and went. And then two years, and three, and suddenly my child was a kid often mistaken for a kindergartner due to his impressive height and general chattiness. And yet “having milk” was still a sweet ritual of our day: for a while, both before bedtime and upon waking, and then, towards the end, just a snuggly wake-up call.
Nursing for three years had fantastic benefits. For starters, Tommy was rarely ill. And I have to believe the close bond we shared, beginning or ending our day with breastfeeding, satisfied his emotional needs. There is research that supports the theory that extended breastfeeding often leads a child to feel more safe being independent. And Tommy is as independent as they come.
Long-term breastfeeding—like any parenting experience—was not always idyllic. There is the matter of teeth, and when his came in, there was a short adjustment period that had me doing all manner of strange things to my nipples: salt water rinses, frequent airing-outs, and nightly applications of lanolin and even my own expressed breast milk. (He quickly learned to stop biting and I healed. No real harm done.) Nighttime feedings were sometimes rushed or anxious if I had scheduled some evening work appointment and feared being late. Traveling while he still wanted to nurse in the afternoon was tricky; on road trips through rural South Georgia, we’d stop at gas stations and park as far away from other people and cars as possible to accommodate Tommy’s acrobatic feeding and my own sense of comfort and privacy.
So why didn’t I give up during the hard or inconvenient times? The simple answer is this: I didn’t want to; he didn’t want to. We both wanted to keep going. Possibly, I was following genetic programming. Have you ever wondered how long humans are “supposed” to nurse, biologically speaking?
According to Breastfeeding: Biocultural Perspectives edited by anthropologists Patricia Stuart-Macadam and Katherine A. Dettwyler, a natural age of weaning in humans falls anywhere from 2 1/2 to 7 years of age.
“Weaning ages in many traditional societies around the world fall within this range, with most children being weaned between 2 and 4 years of age, while almost all children in the United States are weaned well before 1 year of age,” writes Dettwyler, the go-to source on natural weaning.
To try to figure out what a natural age of weaning would look like, Dettwyler looked at modern “low-technology, non-dairying human societies,” who have less opportunity to use breast milk substitutes but who also view female breasts primarily as a source of food. In these traditional cultures, it’s common for children to be weaned anywhere from 2 to 5 years.
Dettwyler also considered modern, non-human primates. She talks about the “hominid blueprint, the underlying biological basis,” and how breastfeeding, as a biological process, is “firmly grounded in our mammalian ancestry.” Humans, gorillas, and chimpanzees are all primates of the class mammalia, and indeed share more than 98 percent of genetic material.
Societal pressure aside, here’s what natural weaning would look like:
Six years! Can you imagine? I would have been only halfway done when I quit!
Ah, well. Three years was a good amount. Three years of building and strengthening his immune system. Three years of support from my family and friends. Three years of learning about the latest breastfeeding research. And three years of holding my son close, feeling a tangible connection of immense, overwhelming love, and giving him the gift of myself, over and over again. Three years was a good amount. Three years was the right amount for me.
Mary Jessica Hammes is an Athens, Georgia-based writer, trapeze instructor, knitter, gardener, comic book enthusiast, and hula hooper. She is mom to Tommy.
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