More on Extended Nursing: An Interview with Vanessa Lowe

Vanessa Lowe with her son

Vanessa Lowe with her son

Our guest today on Mothering Outside the Lines is breastfeeding advocate Vanessa Lowe, who has made a documentary about extended nursing. Vanessa Lowe’s background includes a doctorate in Clinical Psychology, as well as four years as host of a radio show on KWMR (a community radio station in Point Reyes Station, CA). She’s a musician and songwriter, and has released four records, with a fifth coming out in 2011. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and five-year-old son. You can learn more about her radio documentary here.

Or listen to the documentary, Breastfeeding Beyond Infancy, now:

JM: Tell us about your documentary.

VL: “Breastfeeding Beyond Infancy” is an independently produced hour-long radio documentary. It features the voices of 14 women who have breastfed their children between one and four years. Some of the major topics covered include dealing with judgment and criticism, public nursing, the benefits and challenges of breastfeeding, weaning, nursing while working, and getting support. Also featured is commentary from Dr. Nigel Rollins, of the World Health Organization, Dr. Jay Gordon, a Fellow of the American Association of Pediatrics, and Dr. Katherine Dettwyler, Associate Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of Delaware.

The piece is primarily about the stories of these 14 amazing mothers who are so considered and articulate about the parenting choices they have made. The moms I interviewed were incredibly candid and honest about the whole process of breastfeeding their kids, including the joys and difficulties they had along the way. There are some truly funny stories, too!

These are the kinds of stories that we just don’t hear about except for in a group of breastfeeding mothers. My goals were twofold: to put these voices out there to support and educate mothers; and to allow these voices to be heard by people who are not aware that breastfeeding beyond infancy is not that uncommon, is actually a positive thing, and is practiced by a wide range of perfectly normal and healthy mothers!

JM: How did you get interested in the topic of extended nursing?

VL: When my son was about two years old, I started noticing that I was sometimes not that comfortable breastfeeding him in public. I was surprised by this because I was well aware of the medical recommendations to breastfeed for at least 1-2 years, and I was also educated about my legal rights to breastfeed in public. I never encountered any negative reactions to nursing in public—I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, which is sort of a bastion of liberal ideology.

But I had heard stories in the media about mothers being kicked off of airplanes or out of stores, and I had received mildly concerned comments from a few family members.

So even though breastfeeding my two-year-old son was going well, I had absorbed some of the negative views on the practice simply by living in a culture that was not widely supportive of the practice. I found myself anticipating negative reactions.

And then there was this huge contrast between all the scientific findings and medical recommendations about breastfeeding, and the negative cultural attitudes about the practice. The discrepancy seemed to me to be largely about many people’s misperceptions and lack of information, along with some insidious cultural biases.

I started thinking about how to initiate an intelligent, informed cultural conversation about all this. I decided that an important step would simply be making the largely unheard voices of breastfeeding mothers heard.

JM: Is it really normal to breastfeed beyond six months? Beyond a year?

VL: Absolutely. As Dr. Katherine Dettwyler notes in the documentary, human children are expecting to be breastfed far beyond even one year. Her argument is based on several different areas of research including studies of non-western civilizations, as well as that of non-human primates.

The World Health Organization recommends that children be breastfed for at least two years.

JM: I’ve heard women say that your milk changes and is no longer nutritious the longer you nurse. Is that true?

VL: Breast milk continues to supply important antibodies to the child beyond infancy. Of course, as children begin to eat solid foods they are increasingly getting nutrition from other sources, and are not as dependent on breast milk. But the mother’s immune system continues to pass on immune protection to the nursing child.

There are other benefits to the child beyond nutrition. Many of the mothers in “Breastfeeding Beyond Infancy” talk about the emotional benefits of continuing to nurse their kids.

JM: I’ve had many family members tell me “Enough already! It’s time to stop nursing!!” when they saw me nursing a toddler. Do you have advice for how to handle negative comments like those?

VL: There are many ways to deal with negative comments. I think it depends on what your goal is. You can choose to educate people and let them know about the scientific information and medical guidelines—many people are actually unaware of these things, and are simply reacting to cultural biases that they have absorbed or inherited. They may have the misconception that there’s something inappropriately sexual about breastfeeding beyond infancy, or may be mistakenly worried that your child will be hindered in developing independence.

La Leche League has a great fact sheet full of helpful suggestions for how to deal with criticism.

Some mothers use gentle humor. When someone asks, “How long are planning to nurse that kid”? you can just say, “Oh, at least another ten minutes.”

It can be hurtful to receive negative comments about nursing a toddler or older child. Negative comments may even cause a mom to doubt her own parenting choices. Seeking out other breastfeeding mothers, in person or on-line (La Leche League can provide info on groups) can be really helpful. Reminding yourself about why you’ve chosen to continue breastfeeding, talking to others, and sharing your experiences are ways to nurture and fortify yourself, and maintain the emotional energy needed to do the best job of mothering that you can.

JM: How else can women who nurse toddlers get support?

VL: There are actually many places to get support for nursing toddlers. There may be a La Leche League group in your town or somewhere nearby. Even if you don’t know anyone else who’s breastfeeding, if you have access to the internet there are a lot of resources. Facebook has several groups where women share their experiences and offer support. Mothering Magazine, both on-line and the print magazine, is a wonderful resource.

There are great books: Ann Sinnott’s Breastfeeding Older Children, Norma Jane Bumgarner’s Mothering Your Nursing Toddler, and Kathleen Huggins’s The Nursing Mother’s Guide to Weaning.

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22 thoughts on “More on Extended Nursing: An Interview with Vanessa Lowe”

  1. I’ve been a big fan of extended nursing for all my kids. The only drawback for me is I get breast infections every so often. Any tips for preventing /coping with these. I’ve tried a few approaches, but complete rest for 24 hrs seems to be the only thing that makes a difference.
    .-= Ann McMahon´s last blog ..Rebel with a helluva Cause =-.

  2. My oldest I breastfeed till 18mo and switched him to soy formula. Because he is allergic to cow’s milk but I knew he should be on whole milk till 24mo. All I heard from everywhere was 12mo was the limit. I didn’t connect that hey my breastmilk is WHOLE milk. So w/ my 2nd child I breastfeed him till 2 1/2yrs. I only weaned him because I was 5mo pregnant and I just couldn’t take it anymore. Now my youngest is 23mo and still going strong, no sign of weaning & I am very happy about that. Definitely a case of “live & learn”. I have gotten a lot of support for extended/full term breastfeeding at my HMN group(Holistic Moms Network).

  3. I breastfed my oldest for 18 months and my youngest for 14 months. I have full intentions of nursing my next one as long as it is going well for both of us. What better start can you give your little ones?

  4. I breastfed my son, who is 2.5 yrs., until only very recently. We both kind of weaned together because I am currently 5 months pregnant and he was ready to let go. I plan to nurse my youngest in the same manner, as long as he wants to. I wish more people in our culture were more educated about breastfeeding, there are so many advantages.
    .-= Cardenie´s last blog ..Weaning our toddler =-.

  5. I am so grateful to see a piece on this topic! I breastfed my son, who is now nine, until he was three years old, and am currently still nursing my four-year-old daughter. Although I have always been happy with my decision to nurse beyond infancy, even beyond toddlerhood, it helps to hear that it not as uncommon as it seems!

  6. I’ve been nursing, pregnant, or nursing AND pregnant for over 7 years. I nursed my first until she was 3 and I was 5 months pregnant. My second will be 4 in March and is still nursing, and I’m also nursing my 19 month old. Tandem nursing has had it’s challenges and it’s benefits.

  7. I breastfed my daughter till shortly after her 3rd birthday, weaning largely because we needed more sanity around bedtime & 17 months of tandem breastfeeding was enough for me. Her brother is still breastfeeding at 26 months, and I will probably wean him around 3, also, or when he has a younger sibling, whichever comes 2nd. I live in the SF Bay Area, as well. We moved here from ultra-conservative rural MO when my daughter was 6 months old, then moved back to MO when my daughter was 2 1/2 and my son was 1. I have breastfed in public literally all over the country. Believe it or not, the only negative comments I’ve gotten were both in the Bay Area!

  8. I forgot to add–we recently returned to the Bay Area, but my little guy doesn’t really nurse in public anymore–he’s WAY too busy!

  9. 3.5 years for me – for months before that my son had been gradually asking to nurse less and less. He did ask again one more time right after he turned 4, but I don’t count that, with six months of being weaned in between. πŸ™‚

    Now I’m nursing my 10-month-old, and I’ve still never gotten any negative comments while nursing in public. πŸ™‚ Except from my mom, who once gave me the “If they’re old enough to ask, they’re too old to nurse” line with my oldest. *shrug* He was only about one and a half then!

  10. I breastfed my first son until he weaned himself, at 3 years and 3 months, in the middle of my pregnancy with my second. #2 is now 15 months, and still is an avid nursling, and will be for as long as he wishes! Nursing is so sweet, and such a beautiful experience; as a woman, this state of mothering and nursing and nurturing is my most comfortable and natural way of being.

  11. I had decided that child-led weaning was the only thing that felt right to me with my son…not realizing my son would have extreme affection for the process and nurse until 4 1/2 ;0 πŸ™‚ I can’t say he was “really” even ready – but my milk had finally mostly stopped – we both cried when he said sadly and teary-eyed “there’s no more milk” – literally cried πŸ™ Such a long and beautiful road – sad that people don’t realize there’s so much more to nursing than nutrition. My son has always been particularly healthy and independent – I like to think both of those things were influenced by the extended nursing. I’m pregnant now – and my son is 5 years old – and has mentioned “having some” again when the baby comes – mostly an interest in something that was such a big part of his life so far I think. Hoping this baby self weans peacefully at whatever past-two years age he decides πŸ˜‰

  12. Just weaning my son now at 4 years old. We probably would have continued nursing for a while longer on a casual basis, but my husband began to want the transition to be complete. My grandmother has expressed a few pretty negative thoughts, although we haven’t nursed publicly for two years, including in our home when visitors are over. Other than that it has been a wonderful experience for us both. We went far longer than I ever thought we would. Before becoming a mother, I found it odd to see older children (1 year old to 5 years old) nursing, open-minded though I wanted to be. Now it seems perfectly normal.

  13. Just so you know whole cow’s milk is not ever neccessary. My holistic pediatrician instructed me to never put them on cow’s milk, ever! Although I still breast feed my almost 3 year old and my one year old, they do get organic soy milk and almond milk. Cow’s milk is designed to turn a calf into a heiffer in 6 months time. Humans really don’t absorb much nutrients from it. The dairy people want you to think otherwise…and they have deep pockets to try to convince you of that! Leafy greens are the best source of calcium for humans. Broccoli is great, too! Tell your kids to eat their trees, works for me! Good luck!

  14. i nursed my older son til he decided he was “too big” at 6-1/2 years old, and my younger son until just past his 5th birthday, weaning him on the eve of kindergarten due to custody battle pressures. if i have another child i will nurse her or him until she or he chooses to wean.

  15. ek, my granny nursed all 8 of her children out of pure necessity – her doctor told her formula was “scientific” and better for her kids but she couldn’t afford to buy it. she told me repeatedly that “if they’re old enough to ask for it, they’re too old to have it.”

    good for all of us who kept it up in spite of criticism!

  16. I wonder, if I’m still nursing my 4-month-old baby when she’s 2 or 3 years old, I’ll almost certainly need to take several business trips by then. When you’re still nursing an older child, do you then need to pump if you’re away for a few days in order to keep your supply up? That might make it difficult for me to continue, though I definitely see myself bringing the pump to keep it going for her now, while she’s so dependent on it. I’m just unclear on the logistics of keeping the supply going… Any thoughts?

  17. Emily,

    As children get older they breastfeed less. Some older children only breastfeed every few days, depending on the child and your life circumstances. If you are breastfeeding every day and go away for a few days, you may feel slightly full and want to express (use your hand to ‘milk’ your breast) your milk into a cup, but you will not need to pump like you would for a 4 month old.

    If you are worried that your milk supply will dry up if you are away for a few days then you can pump or hand express every day.

    In my experience, I have breastfed a two year old every 3-4 days, and my milk supply has been just fine. But, people are different, and how your milk supply is affected is different. I can breastfeed during pregnancy, whereas some women’s milk dries up when they are pregnant (or they cannot get pregnant when they are breastfeeding).

    So great to hear from all the moms who are breastfeeding and planning to breastfeed toddlers!
    .-= Asheya´s last blog ..Welcome! =-.

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