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Is it normal to breast-feed your toddler, and beyond? Science says...

by Susan Donaldson James / / Source: TODAY

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Brenda Devine intended to breast-feed her son Antonio for a year. Then 18 months rolled around, and she didn’t want to “abruptly call it quits.” Today, her 3-year-old son is old enough to ask for his “booby milk.”

Devine’s husband supports her extended breast-feeding, but some family members and friends don’t approve. “They seem to view me as a weak mother or emotionally needy and also view my son as needy.”

It’s a common question any time a story or photo showing breast-feeding past infancy hits the news. Isn’t it, you know, weird? Won’t it mess up the kid somehow to be breast-fed that long?

In a word: No.

Experts say all the scientific research points to the exact opposite. More breast-feeding equals more benefits, as far as the research tells. The only downside to breast-feeding through toddlerhood is social stigma.

Brianna Devine and her son Antonio
Brianna Devine and her son AntonioCourtesy of Brianna Devine

“I know that weaning would be hard, because we have a relationship,” Devine, 29, from Chatham, New Jersey, told TODAY. “Breast-feeding provides Antonio with emotional security, comfort, safety, oxytocin, love, among so many other things.”

Research shows children who breast-feed past 2 have fewer illnesses. Some studies show the antibodies in mother’s milk increase in concentration in the second year and during the weaning process.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that mothers breast-feed for the first 12 months and “thereafter for as long as mother and baby desire.” The World Health Organization recommends the practice up to age 2 “or beyond.”

How long is too long?

“No one has established the upper limits—at which point the benefits go away,” said Dr. Joan Meek, the AAP’s chair of the section on breastfeeding and clinical professor at the Florida State University College of Medicine.

Critics argue that extended or prolonged breast-feeding creates a dependent child, the stereotypical “mama’s boy.” But the opposite is true, said Meek: “Studies actually show that breast-feeding in general is associated with greater independence and psychological adjustment in children.”

After a year, when solid foods are introduced, breast-feeding is less important from a nutritional standpoint, but “there is no psychological harm and no reason to stop,” Meek said.

Breastfeeding rates have been rising over the last three decades in the United States, but less than a third of all mothers are still nursing when their child is 1 year old.

In 2011, 79 percent of all newborns began breast-feeding. About half were still nursing at 6 months and only 27 percent at 12 months, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Studies suggest one of the biggest reasons mothers don’t breast-feed for longer is the lack of support for working women to nurse or pump breast milk at work, said Meek.

Sometimes, even a pediatrician is unsupportive.

Vonda Walsh, a 43-year-old mother of two from New Jersey, said her own doctor disapproved of her nursing her 2-year-old daughter Amaleigh at well-baby visits. “I don’t even bring it up.”

Walsh nursed her first daughter Mikaelyn until 18 months and intends to continue with Amaleigh probably until she goes to school. But she hesitates in public.

“Sometimes she puts her hand down my shirt when I am out,” she said “I say, ‘Please don’t do this here — it’s our private relationship.’”

Meek said Americans are less comfortable with breast-feeding than people in other countries.

The May 21, 2012 cover of Time magazine featuring Jamie Lynn Grumet breast-feeding her nearly 4 year old.
The May 21, 2012 cover of Time magazine featuring Jamie Lynn Grumet breast-feeding her nearly 4 year old.Time Magazine

“In many parts of the world, public nursing is the norm — whether it’s sitting on a park bench or in a restaurant, no one blinks an eye,” said Meek. “But in the U.S., there is still a lack of acceptance, even with an infant. And when a child 3 years old comes over to the mother and wants to nurse, everyone gets even more upset.”

In 2012, mother of two Jamie Lynne Grumet caused an uproar when she appeared on a controversial Time magazine cover breast-feeding her nearly 4-year-old son, who was standing on a chair.

At the time, a TODAY poll about the issue revealed 73 percent responded, “Eh, I don’t really want to see that.”

The social stigma prevents many women from breast-feeding past a year, according to Kathleen Kendall-Tackett, a psychologist and clinical associate professor of pediatrics at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center.

She co-authored a study in 1995 that found 61 percent of mothers who breast-fed past age 2 were bothered by negative comments and reactions.

Kendall-Tackett, who is co-author of the book, “Breastfeeding Made Simple,” said that worldwide, the typical age for weaning is 2.5 to 3 years, but some mothers continue past 6 or 7.

“Some kids need it longer, and it’s OK,” she said. “It’s a very different thing from breast-feeding an infant; you nurse before the nap or bedtime or if they fall down and skin their knee.”

Weaning is often a “mutual decision,” she said. “There is more verbal negotiation: ‘When you have your third birthday, we’ll do the last nursing.’”

As for Brianna Devine, she said she still struggles over when she will stop nursing Antonio.

“I talk about my feelings and tell him when he cannot have boobies” when she doesn’t want to nurse, she said. “I can put healthy boundaries in place, and we work through the difficult times with language, sometimes silence, holding hands or just looking at each other and him letting me hold him.”

Plenty of people may have opinions about her extended breast-feeding, but for the moment, the only opinion that really matters to her is her son’s. She said, “I know that he will tell me when we’ll stop.”

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