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Health Happy Round-Up: Extended Breastfeeding

health happy round-upWelcome to a weekly series on Traveling with Baby, Health Happy Round-Up which focuses on multiple aspects of wholesome living and optimal health for the entire family.  Each weekend, Traveling with Baby will share some insightful news, recipes, and tips to help you consider fresh new perspectives on wholesome and happy health.

I’ll share a secret with you . . .

I’m still nursing my 21-month old.  Twenty-one months ago, I could very easily understand why many moms quit nursing within the first few weeks or months.

Cracked and bleeding nipples and engorgement–ouch!  Initially, I had to prepare my breasts before a feeding in advance with warm washcloth compresses and lanolin–before each feeding, around the clock for almost two weeks.

Seven weeks post-partum, I got mastitis on half of my breast from a clogged duct that never fully worked it’s way clear.  In spite of the searing pain, I nursed my son through a week of mastitis, fevers, and delirium from lack of sleep without the use of anti-biotics.

After those initial nursing experiences, I could easily understand why the majority of moms in America choose to stop nursing by 6 months post-partum.

My initial goal was to make it to 6 months.  I truly hoped my son and I could maintain a nursing relationship for at least a year, but I work better with shorter-term goals.  I wanted his sole form of sustenance to be breastmilk until 6 months of age.

When my son began solids, the breastmilk feedings reduced slightly over time.  He began to increase the amount of solids, and eventually cut back to  4-6 nursing sessions per day.  Those maintained unless he got a cold or cut teeth.  During those times, breastmilk became his sole form of nutrition, and he boycotted any other forms of food.  I felt like I was nursing a newborn again.

Once we hit 12 months, I realized I was in new territory: extended breastfeeding. At least, that’s the term that’s applied to it in America.  I only knew a handful of moms who’d continued to nurse past 1 year: 3 of whom were family members.  They were wonderful and encouraging for my son and I to continue our breastfeeding relationship as long as we were both comfortable with it.

I set my sights on a new goal: 18 months.

But something strange happened.  As my son grew larger, his feedings demanded a lot more from my body.  By 13 months, I was absolutely drained from fatigue and lack of iron due to breastfeeding.

Some health care providers told me to look out for number one and to quit nursing.  Many friends and family were incredulous that I was still nursing, especially when it affected my ability to care for my family and my patients at work.

Instead of quitting nursing cold turkey, I resolved to limit feedings to three times a day.  Also, I beefed up my iron and other supplement intake (since my pre-natal vitamins alone weren’t enough).

Nursing toddlerTwo months ago, I considered actively weaning my son.  The physical drain wasn’t getting any better.  I failed to see the benefit.  Close friends and family even said things to me like “If I were you, I wouldn’t tell anyone that you’re still nursing your son.”

When did nursing a child who’s not even two years old become taboo?

Years before I was “ready” to have children, I spoke with many moms who were comfortable with nursing up to 24 months.

Somehow that became frowned upon in the time-frame that I had my son.

I needed to provide him with an alternative that would keep him feeling content without sapping me of all my iron and nutrients.  I was open to using raw milk, but it’s difficult to purchase in Virginia, and it’s unrealistically expensive with a cow share program.  I’m not about to pay $11 for a gallon of raw milk (the cost when you add in initial buy-in and weekly fees).

So, we decided to use a colostrum/protein/omega-3/greens supplement powders that were completely safe for babies and adults.  My son loves it.  It’s green.  It’s thick.  It’s sweetened with stevia.  He calls it his juice.  As soon as we got him on it, breastfeedings dropped down to 1-2 times per day.

Last week, Calvin and I went on a road trip to visit family in the Midwest.  While we were there, I thought my milk had dried up in the evening feedings, and my son was only nursing for comfort.  I was okay with this, but yet there was a small pang of loss. This relationship where I could provide sustenance from my own body . . . was suddenly gone?  I was sad about this unexpected loss.

Meanwhile, I had just read the July-August issue of Mothering magazine with an incredibly eye-opening article on a Canadian mom’s breastfeeding experience among the Mongolian culture where the average weaning occurs in ages 4-6, a far cry older than the 6 – 12 months average in North America.

Suddenly, I was filled with huge regret.  I could have done something else to continue to nurse my son longer.  I felt like I had failed him.  I had sold him short of something so significant and important to him.  I wasn’t triumphant about the 21 months that he had received breastmilk, instead, I was downtrodden that I could have allowed the relationship to continue longer.

I continued to ruminate over the many articles I had read about extended breastfeeding or nursing toddlers.  I remembered the very supportive La Leche League group in northeastern Pennsylvania where nursing toddlers was the norm, not the exception. Even though I hadn’t been physically surrounded with close friends or family that supported my decision to nurse Calvin to 21 months, I knew that there was a sisterhood of mothers who shared my beliefs.  Most importantly, I knew my son wanted to continue to nurse.

So, instead of the before-bedtime nursing (where milk supply is at its lowest), I began offering him milk again in the mornings.  He no longer shook his head as if the milk was no longer present.  He was able to nurse.  Milk was still flowing.

I recognize that breastfeeding is a special and fleeting gift from a mother to a child.  Instead of worrying about the extra few pounds that I can’t seem to shake off, like Steph mentions in her breastfeeding post on Adventures in Babywearing. . . I’m happy to savor this relationship with my son.  It may only last a few more weeks, or a few more months, but I’m glad to be able to continue to snuggle and share a beautiful relationship with my sweet boy.

Breastfeeding my son for 21 months . . . and counting.

WABA_Circle_LogoIt’s world breastfeeding week!  If you’re interested in more articles on extended breastfeeding, read Kyla’s article on the benefits of nursing a toddler (for toddler and mom).  Also, check out Elizabeth’s article on 10 good reasons to nurse a toddler.  There’s a wealth of archived articles and links on extended breastfeeding and FAQs on La Leche League International’s site.

–By Dr. Dolly
Subscribe // Twitter me: drdolly
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6 Responses

  1. Great article! I myself struggle with when to stop breastfeeding. When I left the hospital the staff told me they very seldom see a twin mother breastfeeding, since it’s twice the time and toll on your body. At 7 months I am still breastfeeding, but thinking about weaning them, since I am going back to work soon. Whenever I think about weaning them I start crying – so I am very torn. Thanks for your article – it gave me strength to continue on a little longer.
    Dr. Ghita, D.C.

    • Hi Dr. Ghita,

      So proud of you for continuing to nurse both girls at 7 months. You’re a hero! It’s hard to keep up with nursing when going back to work– especially if you’re working full time, and you don’t have your girls with you at the office. Anything you can do to continue is worthwhile. Some leaders in La Leche League say moms returning to work simply increase nursing times at night to maintain the same levels of feeding (just a different time of day). This works especially well if moms can do co-sleeping. I don’t know how that works with twins, but be encouraged that other working moms are making it happen.

      With you in the struggle,
      Dolly

  2. Good for you for following your heart and not allowing society’s “conventions” to dictate your choice.

    I nursed my older daughter until she was almost two and plan to do the same with her little sister (currently 5 months old). Nursing is a beautiful thing – and offers countless benefits to both mom and baby – even after age 1…

  3. The sad thing is, is that in our country the common thing is not to tell people that you are still nursing after 1 year. I think that if more women would tell each other maybe more women wouldn’t feel shunned that they are nursing past 1yo and more women would know that others do.

    • Vicky, I completely agree. There is definitely strength in surrounding ourselves with like-minded women. The more we talk about it and encourage one another, the easier it is to continue to do what we know in our hearts is wonderful for our children.

  4. Thank you for confessing. I’m still nursing a 28 month old. I find that when I tell people this, they often tell me about themselves or their friend/cousin/acquaintance who also nursed their child for a long time.

    I’m battling serious fatigue, despite normal iron and thyroid levels, and feeling like I might need to hold off having another baby until I can figure out what’s missing from my diet or routine. I’m curious: what supplements did you add, and what was the name of the special “juice” you gave your son?

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