Although there are many women who practice extended breastfeeding (nursing past the age of 1) there are quite a lot more who would never consider doing so, despite the fact that both UNICEF and the WHO (World Health Organisation) recommend breastfeeding in conjunction with a healthy diet until at least 2 years of age.
Many women feel they have a limit as to what they view as ‘normal’ when it comes to breastfeeding. Some women don’t feel it’s right to breastfeed a baby past a few weeks, whereas others may draw the line when the baby turns 1. Others, like myself, are comfortable feeding for as long as it is mutually desired — be that two years, three years or beyond.
But why do women feel they cannot, or should not, nurse their children past a certain age? I’m sure there are many women who would secretly quite like to nurse their children for longer than they actually do, but they feel like they are unable to due to various reasons. I am going to outline some of these reasons here, and I would also like to hear your contributions! Please do comment below and let us know your feelings on the subject.
I am lucky enough to live within a town, and within a family, that is generally very accepting of breastfeeding. Although the majority of the women in my family did not breastfeed at all or for long, they have never been anything but accepting and encouraging when I continued to feed my son until he self weaned, aged 2. However, not all women are as lucky as I am. Even those who live within families and social groups who aren’t anti breastfeeding (how anybody can be ‘anti’ breastfeeding is beyond me, but that’s a post for another day) can feel social pressure to stop before they are ready. Perhaps their mothers stopped nursing at a young age, and don’t understand why anyone else would want to carry on. Maybe their friends, whilst supportive of nursing, harbour prejudices against mothers who breastfeed past a certain age. Even if they aren’t outspoken about it, the negative atmosphere is still there.
Misconceptions about Extended Breastfeeding
There are a lot of myths and misconceptions about nursing older children. Mothers may be made to feel like they are somehow spoiling their child by continuing to nurse them (especially if they are still nursing through the night), even though there is significant evidence to prove the opposite. They may also have been ‘frightened off’ by other mothers (or, disturbingly enough, health professionals or women who have never had children of their own), warning them that their children will ‘never’ wean if they don’t do it whilst they are very little. Now, I don’t know any college-age children who are still breastfeeding and/or sharing the family bed! All children wean, and it is certainly no more traumatic to wean when the child is older. If anything, it is less traumatic because the child can better understand the explanations offered. Mothers also may assume that the nursing demands of an older baby are the same as a younger baby; again, this is generally not true. All children are different and require different levels of attention, nursing wise. I don’t know any 18 month old babies that have the same intense nursing requirement as a newborn.
Lack of Support
This point somewhat ties in with my first point, about family and social pressure. If a mother doesn’t feel she is supported adequately in breastfeeding then she will not feel able to continue. If she is consistently hearing negative comments about her nursing relationship, she will feel embarrassed and shunned. Even well-meaning comments (“You’ve done really well, but there’s no point in carrying on now”, etc) can have a negative effect. The fact is, sometimes people don’t know what they are talking about. And sometimes, people don’t think before they speak. No mother should ever feel like she must wean if she and her baby are not ready to do so.