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Why Mothers Nurse Their Children into Toddlerhood

by Norma Jane Bumgarner

When I ask mothers who have nursed longer than a year why they chose to do so, they usually say, "It just seemed natural," or, "He seemed to need it still." Some mothers, taking their cues from the child rather than the calendar, say, "I never even thought about it."

One mother describes the way she felt about her child's continued nursing: "I knew and felt her need for me and her desire to nurse. I love her, and it would break my own heart to disappoint her and refuse myself to her." If we look past all the social rules, and look at the children these rules are supposed to benefit, as did this mother, it is not difficult to see the need our children have for continued nursing - their joy in nursing and their distress when it is denied. A simple but compelling reason for continuing to nurse is to please the child. More and more mothers are watching their children and seeing the need that is there.

Nursing is not only a pleasure, but also quite a convenience. A major task in mothering is helping your child several times daily to overcome fears or hurts or exhaustion. There are various ways to comfort a crying child - walking, rocking, singing - but none is easier or more efficient than nursing. It has been described as a little bit of magic on your side: presto, a fussy child is happy again.

It is nothing short of amazing how quickly a bruise or scrape stops hurting when the first-aid includes nursing. And if it is more than a bruise or a scrape, the fact that nursing does not seem to make the pain go away, tells you quickly that you are dealing with a bigger hurt that may need extra attention. Other methods do quiet children, too, but the psychological network of the very young seems to be wired with nursing as the choice channel for feeling better. Though not all children will verbalize it, nursing toddlers no doubt appreciate nursing for comfort as much as did the two-year-old who, having fallen and then nursed, amply rewarded her mother by saying, "Thanks, Mom, for nursing me. Bye now, I'll be okay."

Teething is the most recurrent physiological cause for discomfort in little children, and when new teeth are making their gums sore, little ones often ask for a great deal of time at the breast. Many a nursing mother has been pleased to help her child through the discomfort of teething with nursing alone, or perhaps with nursing for soothing and cold celery for biting. Of course we are glad sometimes for the relief that aspirin or anesthetic ointments can bring when gums get really painful. It is gratifying, however, to be able to keep our reliance upon chemical comforters to a minimum through use of a natural analgesic: nursing.

Being very close to a warm, cuddly child is the advantage mothers like best about extended nursing. "I used to believe," one mother says, "any mother who continued nursing after so many years had unmet needs of her own that nursing was satisfying." But this mother found as her own nursling grew older that those "unmet needs" she was worried about were actually normal, healthy needs that are intended to be met by nursing.

No matter how much effort has gone into the selling of distance between mother and child - distance achieved by mother substitutes, like playpens and pacifiers, and by child substitutes, like hobbies and pets - mothers, it seems, cannot be changed. We still are happiest when we can hold our children close.

Comforting a sleepy child at bed time and nap time is so easy for families when the little one is nursing. Rarely do nursing families experience the fuss and tension we have come to expect in our culture when a little one needs to go to sleep. Nursing is so effective a tranquilizer for tired children that fathers tease their wives about their "knock-out drops." Few families who have experienced a nursing child's bedtime or nap time will ever want to rear a child any other way

Mothers also nurse their children to help them overcome upsets, emotional as well as physical. Most mothers, even if they do plan to wean, refrain from doing so during an upheaval such as a family crisis or a move. Nursing is too beneficial to children when their families are upset or in transition to cut it off at a time when the child may especially need it. One mother whose family experienced half a year of illness and loss wrote about nursing her daughter during this difficult time: "Nursing has certainly helped her; it has been like an anchor in a storm."

Though little ones who are nursing do experience illness, their time at the breast is an investment toward their good health. Your bloodstream and - to almost that same degree - your milk, carry antibodies to the infectious diseases you have encountered. Researchers are discovering new immunological factors in the living fluid that is mother's milk at a breathtaking rate these days. One of the antibodies, IgG, is in a form that is destroyed by digestion. But others, such as IgA and certain human milk leukocytes, have been shown to be quite active in helping little ones fight off disease. IgA, by way of illustration, protects by serving as a potent barrier, preventing your nursing child from being infected by specific organisms through his intestinal tract.

Most parents who have had the experience of caring for a nursing toddler cannot imagine rearing subsequent children any other way. Only four or five of the nearly one thousand mothers who wrote to me about nursing past one year said that they would not do so again. And the very few who did not want to repeat the experience were overwhelmed, not by nursing, but by the attitudes of other people who were against the nursing.

A few fortunate mothers have had even more than their own experience to help them enjoy a long nursing relationship. One mother says, "My mother nursed me until I was two, so I had a good backup source." Another wrote, "My grandmother and great-grandmother both nursed their children as long as the children wanted to nurse, and I received encouragement and support from both of them." People who have nursed well past infancy have learned in their own homes what a good thing extended nursing is and would rarely advocate any alternatives for themselves - or for their grandchildren. An increasing number of parents or grandparents will agree with the mother who wrote, "Of course I would nurse past infancy again - he turned out so cute and nice and smart," or the parents who said, "We found that the longer we nursed our kids, the better they turned out."
 

 
Reprinted from Mothering Your Nursing Toddler (Revised Edition) with the kind permission of the author and La Leche League International, Copyright 2000.
 
 
 
 
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