I often wonder why there is such turmoil over weaning babies, with worry and guilt and pressure from many sides and many agendas. I can remember defending my choice to nurse both of my children beyond a year. I remember the patience it took to educate others about toddler-led weaning. Believe me, I am a pretty open book about my life and experiences, and share a lot with others. I always do this in the hope of informing people and perhaps helping them to explore new ideas.
In my own experience, and that of my friends who have breastfed their babies well into toddlerhood, our children are healthy, well adjusted individuals. I nursed both of my children until a couple of months before their 3rd birthdays. By the second child I was more sure of myself, and now that my children are 5 and 9 I can't imagine caring for another child any other way.
I personally believe that nursing our children for a longer period will be shown in the future to have long-term health benefits for both mother and child. I was going to call this article "Extended breastfeeding" but then I came across the term "Full-term breastfeeding" and think it more accurately describes the practice. If you are contemplating nursing your baby for longer than your family or your community seems to support, here is some information give you a boost of confidence:
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), "A recent review of evidence has shown that, on a population basis, exclusive breastfeeding for 6 months is the optimal way of feeding infants. Thereafter infants should receive complementary foods with continued breastfeeding up to 2 years of age or beyond."(1)
According to anthropologist B. Holly Smith, in non-human primates weaning occurs around the same time that the first permanent molars come in. (2) In humans that would be, on average, sometime after 6 years of age. Dr. Katherine Dettwyler discusses a number of primate studies in a great article called "A Natural Age of Weaning". (3)
And finally, the words of the wonderful Dr. Jack Newman,
"Possibly the most important aspect of nursing a toddler is not the nutritional or immunologic benefits, important as they are. I believe the most important aspect of nursing a toddler is the special relationship between child and mother. Breastfeeding is a life affirming act of love. This continues when the baby becomes a toddler. Anyone without prejudices, who has ever observed an older baby or toddler nursing can testify that there is something almost magical, something special, something far beyond food going on. A nursing toddler will sometimes spontaneously break into laughter for no obvious reason. His delight in the breast goes far beyond a source of food. And if the mother allows herself, breastfeeding becomes a source of delight for her as well, far beyond the pleasure of providing food. Of course, it's not always great, but what is? But when it is, it makes it all so worthwhile."(4)
2. 1991 Smith, B. H. Age of weaning approximates age of emergence of first permanent molar in non-human primates. American Journal of Physical Anthropology suppl. 12:163-164(abstract)
3. "A Natural Age of Weaning" can be found at http://www.kathydettwyler.org/detwean.html
4. Excerpted from "Breastfeed a Toddler? Why on Earth?" by Dr. Jack Newman http://www.drjacknewman.com/help/Breastfeed%20a%20Toddler.asp