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Pros of breastfeeding older children include possibly providing emotional and nutritional support, and giving a child greater immunity. Cons comprise interference with toddler diet, issues trying to get pregnant or attempting to support an older and younger child while breastfeeding both, and likelihood of criticism toward the mom and the child. As children age, the negatives of this practice may accumulate, and there is also concern about truly older children, such as five year olds and up establishing a more sexualized relationship with the mother.
In the US, many nursing women stop after the first year, but there are many who also argue that breastfeeding older children remains beneficial. This is a common practice in numerous other cultures. It may be most common in those cultures where nutritional resources are poor and children are made healthier by breastfeeding for longer periods of time. This view can be extrapolated to children in the US to suggest children are healthier if they nurse longer.
Studies suggest that continued breastfeeding still provides immunity. Babies who are breastfed longer may have fewer illnesses. Also, many toddlers are picky eaters and may not have a diet that is nutritionally sound, in which case they might require formula. Moms who support breastfeeding older children suggest it’s better to simply let toddlers have continued access to breastmilk, as it is more healthful than formula.
Another argument made in support of breastfeeding older children is that it can be especially helpful for toddlers as they reach the terrible twos. It keeps a close bond between mother and child, possibly helping to provide emotional stability.
Arguments against breastfeeding older children can encompass diet and nutrition, too. Generally, breastmilk alone is not considered an adequate diet after age one. The child who doesn’t eat enough may not be getting enough variety because he is nursing. Some children may have failure to thrive if they don’t eat a regular diet of solid foods, and this risk increases as the child ages.
The mom who plans other pregnancies might have trouble sustaining a nursing child and a pregnancy. There are moms who are able to do this, but then they must schedule feedings for two children with different nutritional needs. At minimum, moms will need extra nutritional support to nurse two different-aged kids. Also, some women find it difficult to get pregnant when they are nursing.
Strong likelihood of encountering criticism from others occurs when moms are breastfeeding older children, and there is a positive correlation of likelihood of criticism with age of the child. Older toddlers and kindergarteners are likely to draw the most attention, and many moms restrict this practice to home so their children, who are now quite capable of understanding criticism, will not hear it. If moms choose otherwise, they may subject their children to statements that cause worry or distress.
As children age, there may be confusion about the very sexualized notion of breasts in Western culture, and continued association with the mother’s breasts. Freud identified the Oedipal struggle as occurring in toddlerhood, and even if people don’t agree with Freud, any child exposed to media like television commercials, will start to feel that a duality exists about women’s bodies. Continuing breastfeeding as children become more social and more media-exposed may raise some questions about the healthfulness of sexual feelings later.
Ultimately, each woman decides in the best interest of her children. Many women are passionately convinced that breastfeeding older children is appropriate, while others believe a natural cut-off point is the age of one or two. Both paths have advantages and disadvantages.
@browncoat - I think it should be up to the individual mother to decide how long to breastfeed. Children will often eat whatever they are used to eating. There may never be a moment when they will suddenly refuse the breast and spontaneously go onto solid food, just like there might never be a moment when older children spontaneously decide they would rather eat vegetables than cake.
One of the best breastfeeding tips for any mother is to do what makes you comfortable. Getting stressed is bad for you and it's bad for the baby. If you aren't producing enough milk, that's OK. Some women never produce enough milk. Some women dry up quicker than others. Your baby will still thrive.
And if you want to breastfeed until they are three years old, that's OK too. Although I think most women are going to want to stop after the kid grows too many teeth.
@Iluviaporos - I actually wonder how many mothers are really doing it because they want the best for their child and how many are doing it because it's much easier to lose weight when you're breastfeeding. Often, when mothers get around to stopping breastfeeding, they'll find it difficult to go back to eating smaller meals than they had during the pregnancy. Breastfeeding supposedly burns about 600 or more calories per day on top of normal levels.
I think people should breastfeed until their child doesn't want to do it anymore. They will let you know when they've had enough.
I don't think anyone should be criticized for the choice to breastfeed until a child is older (within reason, of course) but I also think it's just good sense to only feed them at home. Maybe restrict them to one feed or two per day, so that they are getting the nutrients they need from other places as well as gradually weaning from breastfeeding.
In an ideal world, no one would be judgmental about this, but even mothers feeding young infants are often troubled by people in public places and the older the child gets, the more comments breast feeding will attract.
After a certain point you could be damaging your child by exposing them to the malice of others if you breastfeed in public. So, if you want to continue past a certain age, it's definitely better to do it at home.
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