Sunday, August 2, 2015

Three Years of Celebrating World Breastfeeding Week!

All photos in this post were taken by the amazing and talented Victoria M., at Lazy M. Photography. Be sure to stop by her facebook page and check out more of her work through her website

I have a big kid. It's no secret - everybody knows. She knows. In fact,  she'll tell you, but you won't need her to when you meet her. She'll most likely be talking to you about space - which planets are her favorites, about why plants can be poisonous but snakes can be venomous, showing you a new dance, or telling you about her dogs. You'll know she's a big kid like I know she's a big kid. Even when I bring her to my heart when she's hurt or tired and I see the baby I've always seen, I know she's a big kid. I hold her tiny hand in my hand and if we're very still I can feel it happening in that moment. Her growth is my growth, and I can feel it. She raises her hands up, up, up. As high as she can. She proclaims, "I'm growing so tall. I'm almost so tall as my dad!" She is proud. Growing and growing. 

When she was a toddler we were grabbing lunch at a restaurant after a long morning, she was hungry, tired, and getting upset. I offered to nurse her and we did. In the restaurant booth, the same as I have in many places and so many times throughout her life. Her sneakers were hanging out of the booth and I can remember thinking to myself that she looked like such a big kid that day. Maybe I second guessed myself in that moment, but she was comforted. Her comfort is my comfort and I can feel it. A table nearby asked to move, they were very offended. "She's too old for that." They must have thought that sneakers made a big kid, too, and that was years ago. If she was a big kid then, she's certainly a big kid now. She can't even fit into those sneakers these days! Growing and growing. Far past the stage when many seem to think she shouldn't be nursing anymore.

And yes, I am still nursing her. I have to say that phrase a lot, ad nauseam. Over and over. It has become a programmed response that blends in with all of the other practiced responses that field off judgments made by well meaning acquaintances, strangers, or even family members. I've heard it all. From the don't-you-think-she's-too-old-for-that's to the don't-you-want-your-body-back's to the aren't-you-worried-she'll-never-quit's and even worse. Today, in honor of World Breastfeeding Week, I want to open this discussion that I am usually too quick to shy away from with an awkward smile and a mumbled "this is what works for our family." Moving forward, I'd like to change the dynamic from snap judgments on your part and hurt feelings on mine. I encourage you to ask me the questions you have and to start a conversation. You may just change your mind!  

Since 1979, The World Health Organization has recommended that all children throughout the world be breastfed for a minimum of 2 years of age, with no defined upper limit on duration of breastfeeding. This recommendation is further supported by many reputable health organizations around the world. The American Academy of Family Physicians has said, "Breastfeeding beyond the first year offers considerable benefits to both mother and child, and should continue as long as mutually desired. The American Academy of Pediatrics has said that "Increased duration of breastfeeding confers significant health and developmental benefits for the child and the mother", and further stated that "there is no upper limit to the duration of breastfeeding."  The Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine states that "Children have the right to the 'highest attainable standard of health,' which entails the right to be breastfed." But, it doesn't stop there. From the Centers for Disease Control,  to the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology, to the European Union Blueprint on Breastfeeding, to the International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics, to the International Pediatric Association, and beyond!

Then there's the fascinating work from Anthropologist Katherine Dettwyler, whose research has shown that human children are biologically programmed to be breastfed for a minimum of 2.5 years, and up to a maximum of about 7 years. Her peer reviewed 2004 publication: When to Wean: Biological Versus Cultural Perspectives states that "Extended breastfeeding, from a minimum of 2.5 years to a maximum of about 7 years, is healthy, physiologically normal, and evolutionarily adaptive. It optimally meets the needs of children for nutritional, immunologic, and emotional sustenance until they are ready and able to meet those needs on their own. Duration of breastfeeding is the only life history variable that is subject to direct and substantial cultural intervention and the only one for which routine shortening or complete elimination has become accepted as the cultural norm in some populations."

In addition to resounding consensus from the medical and scientific community on breastfeeding being a normative and biologically appropriate practice for children, there are undeniable benefits to both mother and child. As a child gets older breastfeeding continues to be a valuable source of nutrition and disease protection for as long as the nursing relationship continues. A mother's milk does not lose nutrients at an arbitrary age any more than broccoli does. In fact, we know that human milk expressed by mothers who have been lactating for over a year has significantly increased fat and energy contents when compared with that of women who have been lactating for shorter periods.

You may also have heard of the immunological benefits of breastfeeding. Breastfed children have fewer illnesses, illnesses of shorter duration, and lower mortality rates around the world because human milk is an important and invaluable source of antibodies which play an essential role in the prevention and treatment of childhood illness. Further, just as the nutritive properties of breastmilk aren't lost at an arbitrary age, neither are these important immune factors. As it turns out, they actually increase in concentration to meet the needs of an older child who is nursing less.  Finally, despite the cultural narrative that extended breastfeeding will inhibit a child's independence, we know that extended nursing can actually promote social development. In her paper Extended Breastfeeding and the Law, Elizabeth Baldwin, Esq., states that "There is no evidence that breastfeeding a child beyond infancy is harmful. Quite the opposite is true: breastfeeding benefits toddlers and young children, both nutritionally and psychologically. (...) Breastfeeding is a warm and loving way to meet the needs of toddlers and young children. It not only perks them up and energizes them; it also soothes the frustrations, bumps and bruises, and daily stresses of early childhood. In addition, nursing past infancy helps little ones make a gradual transition to childhood. In fact, prolonged nursing is associated with better social adjustment. (...) Meeting a child's dependency needs is the key to helping that child achieve independence. And children outgrow these needs according to their own unique timetable."

Aside from the overwhelming benefits and all of the reasons there are to continue nursing, the most convincing is that I can see my child, in all of her big kid glory, is thriving. Just growing and growing. I can see it in her resilience, her independence, her fearlessness, her leadership, her bravery. She's not ready to wean, and that's okay. It's normal! It's appropriate. It's practical. It's amusing. It's loving. It's beautiful. She's loved, healthy, and happy. And her happiness is my happiness - what could be wrong about that? 

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