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Discussion Starter · #1 ·
Obviously, nursing is beneficial for as long as the child wants to continue. No debate there. But for how long is it a universal "need"?

I'm looking for people's opinions, but if you have research or other evidence to back your opinion up, so much the better.

I know the AAP says that nursing should continue until age 1 and as long after as mutually desired by mother and child. WHO says "up to age 2 and beyond". These are kind of nebulous, eh?

I think they are purposefully nebulous because every nursing dyad is different and has different needs.

So maybe there's no real answer to this question. But, if you think there is, can you explain why, and give your reasoning please?
 

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All research I've seen says that humans need a full fat milk for at least 2 full years. For that reason and common sense I think that as a rule all humans need to nurse for a minimum of 2 years.

As a general rule I think that the child is the best indicator.

-Angela
 

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Discussion Starter · #4 ·
Quote:

Originally Posted by alegna

As a general rule I think that the child is the best indicator.

ITA with that, alegna. I definitely agree that human milk is the BEST source of nutrients for a child under 2. But is it a true need? That is where I get hung up. I am truly not sure and I cannot find any sources that indicate that it is. You can argue that a newborn *needs* breastmilk because without it, his/her gut is porous, etc. Are there physiological markers in the toddler that indicate a true (physiological) need? Emotional needs will obviously vary greatly from child to child. Actually, so do physiological needs, but besides the immune benefits, is breastmilk providing anything that is impossible to get from other foods?

MV, could you be more specific? As I understand it, the immune system is not fully mature until age 6 or 7...so do children need to nurse until then? I don't think neurological maturity is complete until adulthood, so maybe I'm misunderstanding you.
 

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Well, it's been proven that humans can survive without breastmilk- period. So what we're discussing is what is the STANDARD nutrition for humans at which periods of development. I have not seen anything that would convince me that humans evolved to wean anywhere before two years.

-Angela
 

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Discussion Starter · #6 ·
OK, and I think I agree with you there. I guess I just have a problem with the word "need" which implies that there will be serious adverse effects almost certainly if the need is not provided.

For example, people need clothing in winter. Without clothing, they are almost certain to get frostbite if they go outside during the winter. It's not arguable.

People need food. We can all agree that an organic diet is healthier, but does that mean that we "need" an organic diet?

You see what I'm getting at: babies need nutrition, and breastmilk is better nutrition than any other milk, but is it a need? The immune components seem like the best argument for breastmilk as a need. However, the relative strength of children's immune systems varies widely. To me, it's very hard to say that *every* child *needs* the immunities passed through breastmilk for a full two years. I've seen Dettwyler's research but I don't know of anything else that addresses this issue...do you know of any studies? I am open to learning more.

However, whether or not breastmilk can be said to be a need, in some way, until 2 years old, I think that we have a long way to go before this becomes fathomable to the general public, and it is certainly not an achievable goal for most breastfeeding mothers, for a variety of reasons. I think every mother should be encouraged to nurse as long as she and her child both wish to. I think 2 years is a great goal to shoot for. IMO the problem with calling it a "need" is that...well, to me it's problematic for a couple of reasons.

1. It sounds very dogmatic. It doesn't sound like there is room for individual difference. If no child had ever been known to self-wean before 2, it might make more sense, but 'early' self-weaning happens...even to mamas who nurse on demand. It is not fair to imply that these mamas did not meet their child's need.

2. It is intimidating. If a mama has been nursing for 12 months and feels totally exhausted, the way to get her to "gear up" for another year of nursing is not, IMO, to tell her that her baby "needs" the breastmilk. She will inclined to be skeptical if she has not heard this anywhere before (and chances are she hasn't) - plus, it puts her on the defensive, AND makes her think - wow. I can't do this for another year.

IMO the better option is to point out how much easier nursing in the second year is, and that as complementary foods become a larger part of the diet, the child will nurse less often, etc. I think it's also helpful to point out to mamas that they do not have to nurse on demand if that is making them resent and dread nursing. AND to point out what wonderful benefits BF has already conferred.

Diplomacy, gentleness, providing options and acknowledgement of a mama's accomplishments can go a long way towards creating the possibility of continuing to nurse, IMO...I see it on these boards...and if a mama is just DONE for whatever reason I think it behooves us to be supportive of that. We have not stood in her shoes. MDC mamas are not selfish, not trying to get the kid off the boob as fast as possible. If I read that an MDC mama has decided to wean, I know that it must have been a tough decision and for good reason, and I respect that. I think it's the only thing to do.

I just do not think the "need" tack is helpful and I also am not sure that it's accurate, strictly speaking. I think you can make a case for it but not the same kind of case you can make for breastfeeding a newborn.

Just my thoughts.
 

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Quote:

Originally Posted by Nora'sMama

IMO the better option is to point out how much easier nursing in the second year is, and that as complementary foods become a larger part of the diet, the child will nurse less often, etc. .

A bit off topic, but this is definitely not true for many mothers, myself included. I continue to nurse for the health benefits to my child but this second year of nursing has pushed my patience and endurance to the limit.
 

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Wow Nora. I absolutely agree with what you've said ETA (after reading tubobem's post) except the part about the second year being easier
. I can hardly add more.
In my experience, there are needs and desires on the part of the mother and the child. In my case, I needed my body back for emotional wellbeing. I suppose I could say I 'desired' my body back because there may have been other outlooks or tactics I could have adopted. But I was not in a position to do so at the time.
I nursed both of my kids until they were about 20months. I encouraged weaning quite gently (unlike most other mammals I've seen) and neither I nor my kids were traumatised by it. By the time we weaned completely, they were both eating a wide variety of foods with no noticeable digestive upsets. Their immune systems seemed (and still do seem) strong.
I think my kids benefited from weaning as well. They developed a stronger sense of independence at a time when that trait was really ready to flourish.

Every nursing team is unique. Every member of that team has important personal needs and desires which must be respected.
 

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Great post! I've been wondering along the lines of this question myself. DD is almost 14 months and still not a great (solid food) eater. She nurses like a champ, though! So it seems clear to me that quite obviously "needs" to nurse still. Which makes me wonder about all those children I know whose parents are eager to wean them - are their needs being met?
 

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Discussion Starter · #11 ·
Quote:

Originally Posted by TudoBem
A bit off topic, but this is definitely not true for many mothers, myself included. I continue to nurse for the health benefits to my child but this second year of nursing has pushed my patience and endurance to the limit.
Have you tried setting limits? IMO when nursing pushes the mother to her limits, something needs to change. But, not having BTDT, I am not the best person to give advice.

I have not set any nursing limits on DD, BUT I do try to occupy her during the day with activities other than nursing and I have nutritious snacks on hand. I will nurse if she wants to nurse but I only offer at certain times of day (like before naps and bed.) She seems to have "discovered" solid food and will run into the kitchen all day long doing the sign for "eat". I can imagine that if a child does not care much for solid food, nursing could be very challenging.
 

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Discussion Starter · #12 ·
Quote:

Originally Posted by mamajama
I must dispute this. There are kids who choose to wean before two. And there are strong instincts in some mothers to wean their kids before two. Both of these factors at least indicate the possibility that there is some natural evolution at work for some members of our species.
You know, I forgot to mention this while writing my OP, but I have an MDC mama friend who is an anthropologist (currently writing her dissertation on primate behavior), and she says that primates do not do "child-led weaning"...they wean their nurslings, sometimes quite harshly - pushing them away firmly and absolutely refusing to nurse. Not that I am advocating that for humans!
Not at all.

But it is interesting...I think that Kathy Dettwyler's stuff has contributed to a sort of hazy romanticising of what is "natural". She never seems to mention the methods primates use to wean, or the fact that they almost always wean upon becoming pregnant again. At least, I don't remember reading those things in any of her articles. Meredith Small's book, "Our Babies, Ourselves" was a real eye-opener for me...some of the "primitive" tribes who are supposedly closer to "nature" are extremely harsh with their children - NOT a model for my parenting, at all. It's not all slings and nursing on demand and Continuumness in every tribal culture!

I think we (meaning Western, "modern" people who are attracted to a more "natural" lifestyle) pick the attributes of "primitive" culture that appeal to what we are missing in our culture and tell ourselves that adopting these practices will bring us closer to our nature. However, I think that what is truly natural to humans is extremely variable. Our variability, in fact, is what is truly the hallmark of our species.
 

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Discussion Starter · #13 ·
Quote:

Originally Posted by Hokulele
Great post! I've been wondering along the lines of this question myself. DD is almost 14 months and still not a great (solid food) eater. She nurses like a champ, though! So it seems clear to me that quite obviously "needs" to nurse still. Which makes me wonder about all those children I know whose parents are eager to wean them - are their needs being met?
It definitely is not always harmonious. I think it is very common for mamas to feel a need to wean before their nurslings do. Some will be able to stick it out until they feel their nursling is ready to wean, but some simply can't do it, and I really can't judge them harshly. There but for the grace of G-d go I! I mean, I don't know if next month I'm going to suddenly just not be able to handle nursing. I don't think I would ever wean suddenly (unless I had to go on meds that were absolutely contraindicated and it was a very serious risk to my health not to take them, etc.) but if I found that I were hating nursing I would definitely make changes and try to gently lead the weaning process forward more quickly.

I mean, we're weaning them from the time we give them solid foods, right? So it's all a matter of the speed at which they wean. Sometimes the child takes the reins, other times it's the mother. I think this is VERY natural, actually - more natural than having an arbitrary minimum time to nurse a child.

However, I think it's good to have a goal, because it gets you through the rough spots that are not dealbreakers. I definitely think it's good to encourage mamas to nurse until 2, IF this is a reasonable goal given the mama's life circumstances. But people might have different goals - some might have the goal of CLW, others want to make it to 3, and others want to go to 18 months. If no one in a mama's family or circle of friends has ever nursed past 6 months, 18 months is HUGE! That's a great accomplishment and IMO should not be minimized.
 

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Nora'smama,
Reading your posts is like opening the window on a cool spring day and feeling the refreshing breeze.
In other words, ITA.


Nature can be really violent and ugly in a way. Primates and other mammals tend to be extremely rough with their offspring. We humans today, in our part of the world, have the luxury of bountiful food and good nutrition. We don't need to slog through miles of tundra or stalk and hunt for a week to get a square meal. Therefore, we have the capacity to healthily nurse through pregnancy and nurse multiple offspring (nursing mults. is also common in other mammals, but we grow a HUGE amount in our first couple of years, comparitavely). There are so many societal, emotional, and physical factors to consider. This statement really sums up my thoughts:

Quote:

Originally Posted by nora'smama
... what is truly natural to humans is extremely variable. Our variability, in fact, is what is truly the hallmark of our species.
 

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Discussion Starter · #15 ·
Mamajama, that's the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me at MDC! Thank you!

That's a good point about abundant food allowing us to nurse multiples, nurse through pregnancy, etc. In a harsher environment, weaning a nursling while pregnant would be a matter of necessity...and I believe that infanticide has been a common result of multiple births in many cultures.


We're so lucky to have the choices that we do. Of course, with choice comes the luxury of arguing about what the best choices are...
But I'll take the slings and arrows of the mommy wars over pure biological determinism, any day.
 

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Imo, I think they *need* it until other foods and drinks can fully replace it. This statement already leaves the door open for a wide range of ages: Many of us have learned, the hard way, that food allergies can and do develop (whether it be inherited or from starting solids too early or vaccines wrecking ones gut or whatever) and breast milk works better to give vital nutrition. Some children have sensory problems and literally can't or won't tolerate foods-by tastes, textures, and even colors. Ignoring *how* they came to that point (again, not trying to do a vaccine debate on a bf board, or say it was hereditary or whatever), if they are there at that point, bm is an easier alternative.

I think many confuse *need* for *want* with our babies. THink about it-if you put your baby on your boob at 20 mins old, and nurse on demand from there, then that is all that baby knows for getting food (and a large part of that is comfort too). It is like a learned behavior, almost. We can't study a lot of this stuff (I"m thinking back to old rhesus monkey studies and the like) b/c it is cruel and inhumane (ethics issues), but I think many would agree that if nursing is all they know, then they are going to want it. Do I think there is a magic age when need becomes want? I think that is just too gray and is why KD and others, stay vagueish. Imo, 2 is still a baby. To others, 2 is a straight up toddler/little kid. Do I think a typical, healthy 2 yo *needs* breastmilk? I do, especially if he/she is on the younger end of 2. I would hope that by the older end of 2 that he/she has learned to eat and drink from other sources, is gaining adequate nutrition from other sources, and is learning that bb's aren't the only way to be comforted. I can still even see room for variability in my own statements. ex/my middle son's gut was wrecked from vaccines. It literally took over a year to get him back on track and my milk was the easiest and best for him to digest, for much longer than I would have ever dreamed of nursing. My first babe, I was all done by the time he was about 18 mos. He turned out just fine, but was also in daycare and was sick a lot (arguement for immunities). My youngest babe is 26 mos and is still nursing (and is basically never sick, not even a sniffle in the winter), but I've had to set limits b/c I'm frankly tired of nursing a 32 pound person. He still nurses for 1st thing in the am, to go to bed (except for the last 3 nights! WOOT! see my post on that
), and then sometimes throughout the night and sometimes for comfort or boredom. Do I think he *needs* any of these feedings? Maybe only the first thing in the am one, and only b/c he has never had an appetite for solids in the am first thing, and I'd still like him to have breakfast. I think the others are *wants* b/c he is bored, or doesn't know how to fall back asleep or got a boo boo and wants comfort. Again, I think a lot is in defining need vs. want after a certain point. Does that make sense?
 

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From a few different things I've read, those who research the immune system and breastfeeding say that the human immune system seems to mature around 5 or 6 years, -ish. So that's one possible marker. I agree that it all depends on the mom and child.
 

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Discussion Starter · #18 ·
Hmm. The problem with saying that a child "needs" to nurse until their immune system is more or less completely functional (5-6 years) is that it doesn't make sense when you look at the reality of nursing in human history.

1) In the "Stone Age" (pre-agriculture), nursing one child for 5 or 6 years would mean either restricting fertility severely or tandem nursing. AFAIK there is no evidence that women in Stone Age cultures space their children this far apart or regularly tandem nurse. The !Kung San usually have a birth spacing of 3-4 years IIRC...many cultures have shorter birth spacing, but I've never heard of a longer one. I just have not seen any evidence that any culture has had 5 or 6 years of nursing as the *norm*. I'm sure there have been plenty of 5 or 6 year old nurslings, but I have never seen evidence that this is the normal duration of breastfeeding in any culture, agricultural, nomadic, hunter-gatherer, whatever.

2) That begs the question: if no human society does something, even if biologically it might be said to be optimal, can we really call that a need? IMO, no. If you rounded up all of the healthy old people in the world a very tiny fraction of them would have nursed to age 5 or 6. Some people have weak immune systems and some people have strong ones but nursing to 5 or 6 is so rare as to not even enter into the calculus of why one person's immune system is stronger than another's. If my immune system is strong enough to get me to 82 hale and hearty like my grandma (who was nursed, but certainly not to age 5 - more like age 1) I will consider that adequate!

FWIW the only people in my family to nurse to age 5 were my great-great-grandfather and his twin brother - the family story is that they would come home from school to nurse and fight over which boob to nurse from. However they both died of illness in their 50's. I mean, it's just anecdotal of course, but clearly nursing to age 5 does not provide some magic immune system benefit such that you can clearly divine from someone's health history whether they did so or not. If extended nursers regularly lived to 120 or something, I think we could re-assess whether children need to nurse to age 5. But as the vast vast majority of children do not nurse this long and are not measurably less healthy, I just don't think you can say that people "need" to nurse until 5. Again, if it were a true need, some culture somewhere would be doing it, no?

All this rambling and I still don't think I'm saying what I want to say exactly in the right way, but I'm sure someone will point out the flaws in my reasoning so I can refine, and possibly rethink, my argument


ETA: In "Mothering Your Nursing Toddler", there is a chapter devoted to exploring breastfeeding duration in cultures around the world. In this chapter, the author points out that at one time a supposed "average" age of weaning was reported as 4.2 or something - but that was a myth, actually, kind of a tidbit that kept getting passed around until someone finally looked into it and found that it was not accurate. No contemporary culture regularly weans at age 5, and there is no evidence that I am aware of that any premodern cultures regularly weaned their nurslings at that age, either. The worldwide average age of weaning among *cultures* (not individual nurslings) is something like 2.5 - but the MEDIAN age of weaning is significantly lower, probably between 6 months and a year at best, since in both industrialized and developing nations, children are likely to get either no breastmilk or only 6 months to a year. It is a fascinating chapter, well-footnoted, and I recommend that book highly to any extended breastfeeder.
 

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Discussion Starter · #19 ·
Quote:

Originally Posted by phishmama
Imo, I think they *need* it until other foods and drinks can fully replace it. This statement already leaves the door open for a wide range of ages: Many of us have learned, the hard way, that food allergies can and do develop (whether it be inherited or from starting solids too early or vaccines wrecking ones gut or whatever) and breast milk works better to give vital nutrition. Some children have sensory problems and literally can't or won't tolerate foods-by tastes, textures, and even colors. Ignoring *how* they came to that point (again, not trying to do a vaccine debate on a bf board, or say it was hereditary or whatever), if they are there at that point, bm is an easier alternative.

I think many confuse *need* for *want* with our babies. THink about it-if you put your baby on your boob at 20 mins old, and nurse on demand from there, then that is all that baby knows for getting food (and a large part of that is comfort too). It is like a learned behavior, almost. We can't study a lot of this stuff (I"m thinking back to old rhesus monkey studies and the like) b/c it is cruel and inhumane (ethics issues), but I think many would agree that if nursing is all they know, then they are going to want it. Do I think there is a magic age when need becomes want? I think that is just too gray and is why KD and others, stay vagueish. Imo, 2 is still a baby. To others, 2 is a straight up toddler/little kid. Do I think a typical, healthy 2 yo *needs* breastmilk? I do, especially if he/she is on the younger end of 2. I would hope that by the older end of 2 that he/she has learned to eat and drink from other sources, is gaining adequate nutrition from other sources, and is learning that bb's aren't the only way to be comforted. I can still even see room for variability in my own statements. ex/my middle son's gut was wrecked from vaccines. It literally took over a year to get him back on track and my milk was the easiest and best for him to digest, for much longer than I would have ever dreamed of nursing. My first babe, I was all done by the time he was about 18 mos. He turned out just fine, but was also in daycare and was sick a lot (arguement for immunities). My youngest babe is 26 mos and is still nursing (and is basically never sick, not even a sniffle in the winter), but I've had to set limits b/c I'm frankly tired of nursing a 32 pound person. He still nurses for 1st thing in the am, to go to bed (except for the last 3 nights! WOOT! see my post on that
), and then sometimes throughout the night and sometimes for comfort or boredom. Do I think he *needs* any of these feedings? Maybe only the first thing in the am one, and only b/c he has never had an appetite for solids in the am first thing, and I'd still like him to have breakfast. I think the others are *wants* b/c he is bored, or doesn't know how to fall back asleep or got a boo boo and wants comfort. Again, I think a lot is in defining need vs. want after a certain point. Does that make sense?
Phishmama, I think I understand what you're saying. I agree that the physiological need to nurse is different from the emotional need to nurse, the habit of nursing, or the simple desire to nurse. And obviously the mother has needs and wants, too, and must balance her perception of her nursling's needs/wants with her own when deciding whether to set limits or wean, etc.
 

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I think somewhere on their natural way to independance from attachment. (which is somewhere around 4 years)it can be different for every child. I wouldn't personally recomend weaning before 2. Not saying all kids wean from "attachment" at that exact age, but it's an estimate. I think emotional and physical needs play in. So it is different for every family. But I think presonally, that all kids should be nursed until 2 at least. I don't know any child under 2 (or 4 for that matter) with a diet that can sustain them without breastmilk or supplementation of some sort.
 
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