Why Nurse Toddlers
by Katherine Dettwyler, PhD
Department of Anthropology,
Texas A and M University
I won't take up space to post another
long excerpt from my other chapter in my book, the one about weaning, but that chapter
does provide many lines of evidence suggesting that the "natural" age at weaning
in modern humans would be between 2.5 and 7.0 years, if we didn't have various cultural
beliefs about how long it should be. I looked at lots of different data, and the absolute
minimum age was 2.5 years. All of the studies done to date on the health benefits of
breastfeeding show continued health benefits and IQ increases up to 2 years of age. Beyond
two years of age? There haven't been any studies yet. But it is hard to imagine that all
the good nutritional benefits, immunological benefits, and long-chain polyunsaturated
fatty acids thought to be responsible for the IQ boosts would suddenly disappear the day
after the child's second birthday! So, if you want, when you go to visit your
mother-in-law, tell her that "scientific research by a professor at Texas A&M
shows that 2.5 to 7.0 years of nursing is what our children have been designed (whether
you believe "designed by evolutionarey forces" or "designed by God")
to expect." I find that often critical relatives, friends, neighbors, and even
strangers, will find it very difficult to respond to a statement like that. Maybe it isn't
fair that we can't just say "I'm parenting the way that feels right to me" and
be respected, but people usually do show more respect for doctors and "scientific
research," and it moves it away from being so personal, something that you are just
doing to be weird (in their eyes), and into the realm of what the research suggests is
best. I know some people who tell unsupportive relatives and friends that their
pediatrician said the child needed it. Again, the pediatrician isn't there to argue with,
and most people will respect someone's decision to follow their doctor's recommendations.
Another line I have used when people ask -- and I'm nursing
an almost 4 year old, but with total family/friend support -- is "Well, you know, he
just keeps getting older one day at a time, and if he needed it yesterday, then I guess he
stills needs it today." Humor may help, also, something along the lines of
"Well, he probably won't be nursing when he starts kindergarten, but if he is, I'll
just have to meet him at recess." Or, you can try the tack that children are all
different and have different needs, and some kids need to nurse longer than others, and
you are trying to meet your child's needs. Point out that if he was weaned, but still
needed to suck, he would probably turn to his fingers or thumb, and that can lead to
orthodontic problems. Also, point out that breast milk is a complete and well-balanced
food, much better for human infants than cows' milk, which can trigger allergies or cause
digestive problems, and that you would rather have him drink your milk than cows' milk, or
apple juice, or Coke or Kool-Aid. When I hear about doctors telling moms to wean so the
baby will eat more solid food, I always want to ask them (the docs) what foods they had in
mind as being nutritionally and immunologically superior to breast milk -- I mean, are we
talking about hot-dogs here?
I have always been blessed with a very supportive family,
including a wonderful mother-in-law, who breastfed four children back in the 1940s and
1950s, when it wasn't in style. She has always supported our parenting decisions, and is
just a great person all around. My heart goes out to you, trying to cope with unsupportive
relatives. Hope you get lots of good suggestions from the list.
Prepared August 5, 1995.
Last updated April 15, 1999, by sak. Contents
copyright 1999 Sue Ann Kendall and Kathy Dettwyler.
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