I read a brief article this morning on the stigma associated with nursing a toddler, and it took me back in time. I nursed Jack until he was 14 months old. He was such a mature looking baby - lots of hair on that kid - that people always guessed he was much older. Even though I stopped nursing at 14 months, most people thought I was nursing a two-year-old. I got some really interesting looks. Some people looked disgusted. Others would look at my child, then look up at my face as if there were some clues there. These people were confused. Why was I still nursing my child?
The only reason I stopped nursing at 14 months is because I needed my body back. I had started to experience some things that told me that my health was beginning to suffer, and I knew that nutrition-wise Jack didn't need it anymore. He was drinking mostly cow's milk by then anyway, nursing only in the morning and at night. Still, it was difficult to stop nursing. Jack clearly still valued the closeness and security that is part of the nursing experience. And my goal had been to nurse until he was two years old. Why until he was two? Looking back on it, for no good reason.
The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends nursing exclusively for the first six months and continuing to nurse until the child is at least two years old. There is some support for these recommendations, but they are somewhat arbitrary also. A child is probably as well off as any other if he nurses only for a few months, or nurses in combination with formula, and certainly there are countless examples of kids fed formula exclusively that lead normal healthy lives. Consider too how unhealthy it may be for a baby to be in the care of a completely stressed out mother who is trying to do it all right! There is quite a bit of pressure to meet the WHO standards. Most of us feel we've succeeded if we make it six-months. If we are unable to for any number of reasons, it can make us feel that we have failed.
Nursing is not as easy as we all assume it should be. I remember being pregnant and just assuming that nursing my baby would be the easy part. Other moms I have talked to have expressed the same feelings. They were surprised at how hard it was. Many times I nearly stopped nursing because the challenges were many, but I carried on, probably propelled by a sense of duty. New moms hear all about the joys and benefits of nursing, but what they also need to hear is that challenges are normal and common and that baby will be just fine if not breastfed. A rested, happy and available parent has to be of far greater value than a continued struggle to provide breast milk. For more on this issue, read this post about the pressure to breastfeed.
I nursed exclusively, and it near killed me. I listened to the advice warning against giving my baby a bottle before he was six weeks old, in order to avoid the so-called nipple confusion. Could we not have come up with a more ridiculous name for what sometimes happens when young babies are given bottles or pacifiers? I avoided bottles and soothers for six weeks, and then found that my son would not take one no matter what we tried. Jack suffered from acid reflux and fed every hour or two for months. Needless to say, I slept very little during that time. If I were to have a second child I would ignore this advice, recognizing it for what it is - a battle cry of The Breast is Best Brigade and nothing more, something to keep in mind if things go wrong, but not a working principle. I would have someone else give my child a bottle at least once every day very early on. The baby's dad could be involved. Why should he be left out of the early feeding experience?
Returning to the original question, how long should you nurse your child? It seems to me that the healthiest option is the one that suits the individual baby and mother best. If the WHO recommends nursing for two years and beyond, why then are people so put off by the practice? We moms feel like failures for nursing less than two years and we feel like pariahs if we do nurse that long or longer. There's no way to win this one.
Once you become a parent you are automatically entered into a world of judgement. Other parents, and non-parents too, will cast judgement on your parenting decisions and will have no problem telling you what they would have done differently. Probably we've all done it ourselves. Since there's no way to please everyone anyway, why not do what's best for you and your child? Trust your gut. Do what brings you and your baby the most joy, while doing the best you can nutritionally. Find like-minded moms to share your experience with. The support is priceless (see my post A special thank-you to my friends) And just breathe!
NOTE: As always, my ramblings should not be substituted for the advice of a professional. If you are struggling or have questions about feeding your baby there are many doctors, nurses and support organizations that can help. Talk to your local health region for recommendations.