Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Going with the flow...

It's now March, and this month Baby Seal will turn one.

Before Baby Seal was born, I said to anyone who asked that I would "give breastfeeding a try, but if it didn't work out, I would feed formula with pride and joy." After she was born, and I astonished myself with being about to actually, like, produce milk from my own body with next to no problems, I decided to breastfeed for "at least six months... maybe nine." Nine months came and went, and I realized with a jolt that I only had three months or so left. Then I realized with another jolt that I didn't actually "have" to wean her at 12 months. I could keep right on going, just as long as I wanted to.

It was a strange moment. It wasn't that I had ever thought of nursing past 12 months as being improper or icky (I've been in too many parts of the world where women will flip an entire tit out to feed a toddler to be under such delusions). It's just that I never, ever thought of "extended nursing" (even now, it seems so odd to see those words applied to myself!) as something that people like me did. Extended nursing was for mothers who gave birth in paddling pools and kept their babies in slings on a permanent basis (except, of course, when in the Family Bed). Or for women in poor countries who had to nurse for years on end. Not for normal developed-world mothers like me, who do paid employment for The Man and who told their obstetricians that during labor they wanted to be as high as a ****ing kite throughout.

For this change in attitude, I have my beloved knitting website, Ravelry (aka "Facebook for knitters") to thank in part. It's crunchy-ish, but not insanely crunchy, and above all does seem to have a lot of "mothers who think"(well, we are knitters/crocheters, after all). And there are lots of women who nurse past 12 months over there. Call it "peer orientation" or whatever you will, but just being around mothers who nurse for longer really does make it seem less of a freakish thing to do.

The flip side of websites and forums that supported extended nursing is that in general, they can't limit themselves to supporting extended nursing; rather, they tend to foster an atmosphere that pushes it on every woman. Ravelry, thank God, is largely free from overt pressure in this respect... unlike, say, Kellymom or Mothering, where a mother asking for tips on how to get her 12-month-old to accept cow's milk so that she can wean her will get responses ranging from outright criticism to "Could you explain why you are weaning her right now?" In that polite tone of voice that tells you so much more than the words themselves.

There was recently a post on one of the Ravelry groups where the posters were discussing the scientific case for nursing past 12 months. All the usual sources were cited in favor--Kellymom, the World Health Organization, that bloody Gulick study. I kept quiet, as I suspected that my own opinion might not be too popular--my opinion being that in developed countries, the benefits of extended nursing are likely to be extremely small for the child (ironically, there is probably better scientific evidence for extended breastfeeding's benefits for the mother, in the form of a slightly lowered risk of certain cancers).

As for the fact that the WHO recommends breastfeeding to two years or more, I am afraid I really could not care less. The WHO is the World Health Organization, and as such it (reasonably enough) tailors its advice primarily to those most in need of it: poor parts of the world with high infant and child mortality rates. If you are living in a community with no clean water, no pasteurized animal milks, not a lot of nutritious food for toddlers and no birth control for mum, then breastfeeding for years genuinely does raise children's survival rates. If you are living in the developed world, breastfeeding for years is more on the level of taking your child to Mommy and Me classes; it's harmless and a pleasant thing to do if that's your thing. It's not remotely necessary for producing a surviving, thriving child.

However, I am going to shut up now, since Good Enough Mum has discussed all this far more eloquently than I could ever do.

While I'm glad whenever I see the You Must Wean At 12 Months, Because Nursing After Then Suddenly Becomes Icky attitude being questioned, I'm not sure how much of an improvement it is if this just gets replaced with You Must Breastfeed Until Two Otherwise Your Child Is Being Deprived (especially when the claims as to why are so scientifically dodgy). Just a modest proposal, but how about a different idea; the idea of just stopping when you damn well want to... for whatever reason? No plans, no dates or deadlines (in either direction), no pressure. Just you and your child and whatever feels "right" for both of you. The more I think about this idea, the more I like it. Just stepping into the water and letting the current take you, and seeing where you end up. Going with the flow.

So why am I going to keep going for a while? Well, mostly because we both enjoy it and I see no reason to stop. Plus--can I be honest?--it's a convenient lifestyle tool for me, because nursing time is increasingly my internet time! The to-wean-or-not-to-wean question has come up recently in my due date club, and all I can say is that there seems to be a very strong correlation between babies' distractability and mothers' weaning intentions: those of us who were planning to keep going were all saying things like "It's our relaxation time, he blisses out at the breast while I catch up on Facebook," while those who were stopping or planning to stop shared stories about how their babies were so distractible that nursing has become a fight and a bore, and they were taking this is a signal that He's Just Not That Into You any more. An example of "seeing where the current takes you," and a very good one.

By the way, this is another reason why I'm so wary of the increasing pressure found in some quarters to breastfeed until two as a maternal duty. Extended nursers may enthuse loudly about how nursing an older baby or toddler makes parenting a toddler more convenient, but it would be truer perhaps to say "No, nursing your particular child makes life more convenient for you." Increasing pressure on all mothers to breastfeed for two years no matter what will inevitably mean that many women will feel obliged to keep struggling away with nursing even when their particular circumstances or child means that this is not convenient or a tool that makes parenting easier; for example, even if their child is so distractible that the only way to nurse is to shut yourself and baby away in a darkened room, or even if they get pregnant again and are in pain and resenting their child. As if that's not bad enough, there seems to be more and more cases of advice along the lines of "If you [give bottles regularly/spoonfeed solids/nightwean/don't allow access to the breast at all times] your baby is likely to self-wean early" (which then means you are breaking those all-important finger-wagging WHO guidelines). "Nurse to two years no matter what" thus easily becomes a tool for frightening or guilting mothers into practicing certain mothering styles which they may or may not be comfortable with. Not good.

That said, since I am fortunate enough to have a baby who is prepared to ignore my flickering PC screen during milky time, and since we both still enjoy the closeness of nursing, I am going to "go with the flow" and take full advantage of this, and nurse until I feel like stopping.

I even had nursing to thank for getting me through a hellish day last week when my childcare provider cancelled on me on a day when I had several deadlines to meet--somehow the day's work got done, though a mixture of making the most of naptimes and letting Baby Seal hang out at the milk bar as much as possible while I typed with one hand. Oh, and Peppa Pig on DVD, if I'm honest. And letting her pull things out of cupboards and strew them all over the room and destroy the baby gate, as demonstrated above. Such is the life of a freelance worker with a small child. Bring on Year 12-24 Months--I'm ready!


  1. Well said. I think everyone should do what works for them without judgement.

  2. Thank you for writing this post! As I begin to wean my 8 month old baby, because that's what feels right for us, it's so nice to read some fact based information that doesn't make me feel like I'm a neglectful and selfish mother. I love your blog and wish I'd discovered it earlier, so thank you for bringing common sense to the breastfeeding conversation!