Walking, Talking, and Nursing
From: NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 19 No. 2, March-April 2002, pp. 49-50
I am part of a circle of friends who are all breastfeeding toddlers between 12 and 36 months of age. When we get together at La Leche League Group meetings, we often marvel at the benefits of nursing. What would we do without it? Babies need to breastfeed for obvious reasons: nutrition, general health, and mother-infant bonding to name a few. But breastfeeding has become even more important, not less, as our babies turn into toddlers and preschoolers.
One of the biggest challenges of toddlerhood is the development of language. Studies show that children who have been breastfed have better language skills, even as they grow older. There are many possible factors for this. Hearing other people speaking, understanding the meaning of words, and producing clear speech are all enhanced by breastfeeding. Human milk prevents ear infections, which can cause fluid to build up in the ear and make hearing speech difficult. Pronouncing speech sounds is a physical skill that requires coordination of the muscles in the tongue, lips, and jaw. The action of suckling exercises these muscles, giving older nurslings a real advantage verbally. Finally, language development is a mental as well as a physical feat, and breastfed babies have, on average, a higher IQ than babies fed artificially (Sears 2001).
Toddlers’ erratic eating habits are a frequent subject of discussion in our group. Some days our children want only crackers, other days they don’t seem to be interested in food at all. We often worry that our children are not getting all the nutrients, vitamins, and minerals they need to be healthy.
Thank goodness for breastfeeding! I am reassured by knowing that as long as I eat a healthy diet, with adequate protein, healthful fats, vegetables, and fruit, Finlay, my 20-month-old daughter, is guaranteed to get all the right stuff in her milk. Human milk is tailored to suit the specific needs of a child, whether she is two weeks old or two years old, so that the ratio of proteins, carbohydrates, and fats should be just what she needs.
And what about the immunological properties of human milk? A child’s immune system is immature until she is around two years old, so that extra boost of antibodies from human milk is important to help combat infections. One drop of human milk contains millions of infection-fighting white blood cells! Even after Finlay’s system is mature, I will continue to pass on antibodies to the particular germs she has been exposed to, decreasing the severity of any illness she may come down with. It would seem that the immune-boosting properties of mothers’ milk are even more important to a toddler because the sheltered baby has now become a self-propelled explorer, touching everything she can get her little hands on. From the poles on public buses to the monkey bars at the playground, Finlay’s exposure to germs is on the increase while her desire to stick those hands in her mouth hasn't shown any sign of abating.
Whenever I face criticism for extended breastfeeding, I remember that nursing beyond the first birthday is a normal part of human nature. Historically, babies nurse between two to four years. Western society, where babies are routinely weaned well before one year of age or not nursed at all, is a marked exception to the rule (Granju 1999). Anthropologist Meredith F. Small suggests that for 99 percent of human history, human milk was the primary food until two years of age, and breastfeeding continued for several more years (Granju 1999).
Katherine Dettwyler’s research on other primates points to a natural weaning age in humans between two-and-a-half and six years of age. She reports one study where primates were found to wean their young at about the same time they were getting their first permanent molars. In humans, that would be five-and-a-half to six years. Another study showed that primate offspring weaned when they reached about one-third of their adult weight, which happens in humans between five and seven years of age (Granju 1999).
Another possible indication of a natural weaning age is the age at which children self-wean. This varies widely according to individual children and circumstances, but on average seems to be from two to four years (Bumgarner 2000). I am curious to know at what age Finlay will stop nursing but I’m in no rush. She’ll let me know when she’s ready.
Even knowing all the technical reasons for extended breastfeeding, the mothers in our circle of friends often stress the convenience of nursing our toddlers over other reasons. It’s just easier! Forgot to bring a snack to the park? No problem, “nursies” are always packed and ready. Whether you are sitting in an airplane waiting for the weather to clear or stuck in an elevator, hunger, thirst, and comfort are all taken care of.
Without nursing, how would we get our toddlers to sleep, quickly and easily, at nap time and bedtime, not to mention after night waking? That’s just the beginning. Nursing helps in so many situations of emotional upset, such as tantrums over not being permitted to climb up on the stove, countless bumps and scrapes, disappointment when Grandma has to leave, frustration when a child can’t get her own shirt on, and anger when other children want to play with her toys. When Finlay is over-stimulated and just can’t cope any more, nursing is a way for her to calm down and get centered. She can be in the middle of a fit of tears, but a quick nursing works like an instant mood changer and she pops up again with a smiling face, ready for the next hurdle.
My friends and I notice our children breastfeed more often, at night as well as in the day, when they are going through developmental changes. Just think what toddlers are experiencing in such a short time: cutting teeth, learning to walk, learning to understand and produce words, and spending all day making discoveries about how life works. I am glad to be able to offer Finlay a secure haven at the breast as her world changes and grows.
Bumgarner, N.J. MOTHERING YOUR NURSING TODDLER. Schaumburg, IL: LLLI, 2000.
Dettwyler, K. Breastfeeding: Biocultural Perspectives. Hawthorne, New York: Aldine de Gruyter, 1995.
Granju, K.A. Attachment Parenting. New York, New York: Pocket Books, 1999.
Sears, W. and Sears, M. The Attachment Parenting Book. New York, New York: Little, Brown, 2001.
Small, M.F. Our Babies, Ourselves. New York, New York: Doubleday, 1999.
THE WOMANLY ART OF BREASTFEEDING, 6th Edition. Schaumburg, IL: LLLI, 1997.