by Andy Steiner
This could either feel like a beacon of light on the horizon or a sad reality of life: At some point, every mother stops breastfeeding. Some start thinking about stopping not long after they've begun. Others find that nursing becomes such an important and rewarding part of their lives that they feel like they could go on forever. Usually a mother (or, regrettably, another outside adult force) leads the charge to stop nursing, but sometimes it's the kid who makes the final decision to quit.
No matter how it comes about, no matter if it feels traumatic or natural for the parties involved, the truth is this: Weaning happens.
Anthropologist Katherine Dettwyler, Ph.D, famously studied the average weaning ages of primates, humans' closest ancestors. She concluded that if left to their own devices, human children would likely wean at or around the same ages as apes, orangutans, and gorillas -- somewhere between two and a half and seven years. Even though she knows that Western social mores don't allow for many seven-year-old nurslings, Dr. Dettwyler still advocates for the nutritional, emotional, and developmental benefits of extended breastfeeding, a stance that has elevated her to hero status in the attachment parenting world.
"You have to consider the needs of the individual mother and look at the individual baby," Dr. Dettwyler says. "That said, weaning at six months is not biologically normal. When babies come out of the birth canal, they don't know they are Americans," she says. "They don't know that our culture expects them to stop breastfeeding at a specific time. All they know is that they are little baby primates. Their bodies are going to expect to nurse for two and a half to seven years, and to them that is normal."
What seems normal for one baby might feel abnormal to another. Timea Szalay is a lactation educator and mother of four from Innisfil, Ontario. While she knows that many children continue to nurse happily well into their preschool years, she's come to the conclusion that most kiddies decide to call it quits long before they're old enough to ride two-wheelers.
"This isn't the case for every child," Szalay says, "but I generally find that babies wean themselves sometime between 18 months and three years."
When Szalay started having children, she decided that she was going to let her babies determine the way they wanted to be breastfed. "From the start, I knew that I was going to let my children lead the way," she says. "I was going to let them decide on their own when they wanted to nurse, how much they wanted to nurse, and to have their own way of weaning themselves." Her first children, a set of twins, abruptly stopped nursing at four-and-a-half months. Her third child stopped taking breastmilk when he was less than nine months old. Both weanings took Szalay by surprise.
"My twins just quit one day, and there was nothing I could do to get them to start again," she recalls. "I was terribly sad about it, but I was also so overwhelmed by being a new mother that I didn't know what else to do. My third stopped taking the breast when I had pneumonia and I had a high fever. I was very sick and on antibiotics. I don't know if that's why he stopped nursing, but for some reason he just stopped one day. I often think I could've stopped taking the antibiotics, that maybe that would've brought him back, but eventually I told myself he stopped when he wanted to."
When Szalay gave birth to her fourth child, she took the same child-led approach to breastfeeding as she had with the other three. This time things are different. Her youngest son, now three-and-a-half, is still nursing about three times a day and once at night. Both mama and son are happy with the arrangement.
"Because the twins quitting so young was a disappointment, when my third went to five months I said, 'Wow. This is all bonus,'" Szalay says. "I viewed every extra day as a benefit for me and my child. Now, with this son I continue to say every day is a bonus. I'm very happy with the decision I've made to keep nursing him as long as he wants. Maybe it's partly because he's my last child and it's a way of me hanging on to this part of my life, but when he wants to quit, I'll support his decision."
Before I became a mother, I had no idea that weaning could be a controversial topic, touchy enough that many breastfeeding guides offer only the slimmest advice on how to make it safely through this big transition. (A few books do offer good weaning advice, though, and board-certified lactation consultants can also a great source of information.)
In the not-so-distant past, many doctors and mainstream parenting gurus argued that after the first year or so, breastmilk provided little nutritional benefit for children. In recent years, however, most medical experts have changed their tune, and new research has discovered that breast milk continues to boost the immune systems of kids well into the second year of life, maybe even further.
That's great news, but plenty of mamas who've nursed their babies past the traditional definition of "babyhood" have gotten their share of grief from friends and family who encourage them to stop nursing the minute the sight of a growing (or talking or walking) child at its mother's breast starts to make them feel uneasy.
Szalay tells her clients to ignore the critics and keep on nursing for as long as they -- and their babies -- want. "Breastmilk is the best food for babies," she says. "No matter if you nurse for just a week or for years, breastfeeding provides emotional benefit as well as protection and immunity for your child. No matter what the age of your child, your breastmilk is made specifically for him. Every day your child gets milk from your breast is an amazing bonus for both of you."
Reprinted from Spilled Milk: Breastfeeding Adventures and Advice from Less-Than-Perfect Moms by Andy Steiner.
Andy Steiner, former senior editor at Utne, is a prize-winning writer whose work has appeared in Ms., Glamour, Mademoiselle, Self, and Modern Maturity. She lives in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Copyright © Andy Steiner. Permission granted to Pregnancy.org, LLC by Rodale, Inc., Emmaus, PA 18098.