10/26/2008

Extended Breastfeeding

Found this on YouTube:


Extraordinary Breastfeeding

It's the documentary on Veronika Robinson, who breastfed her daughters until ages 7 and 8. Based on the comments left on YouTube, it's considered by most people as weird, abnormal, disgusting, and some even went so far as to call it incest or cannibalism. Okay, it may be a bit shocking to see a big, school-age child breastfeeding, but to label it as incest or cannibalism? That just goes to show how ignorant and imbecile those people are.

I would agree that breastfeeding an 8-year-old would be considered as abnormal -- in our society. But what is normal? Normal can be subjective. In other societies where children are allowed to wean by themselves, maybe breastfeeding an 8-year-old would be considered as normal. In surveys on various tribes around the world, the average duration for breastfeeding is 3 to 5 years.

Think about it. Humans are mammals, and mammals nurse their young. That's what the mammary glands are for. Biologically, we are supposed to breastfeed our babies. As for the duration, if we look at it from an anthropological viewpoint, the natural age for weaning would be around 2.25 to 7 years. The article A Time to Wean, by anthropologist Katherine Dettwyler, explains the natural age of weaning:
Weaning according to tripling or quadrupling of birth weight. The idea that mammals wean their offspring when they have tripled their birth weight is widely reported in the breastfeeding literature (Lawrence 1989). This rule of thumb holds true for small-bodied mammals, but not for larger ones. Recent research has looked at age at weaning and at growth among large mammals, including primates. The research shows that weaning occurs some months after quadrupling of the birth weight, rather than tripling (Lee, Majluf and Gordon 1991). When do U.S. infants typically quadruple their birth weight? For males, the average age is around 27 months, and for females, around 30 months.

Weaning according to attainment of one-third adult weight. Other studies suggest that primates are like other mammals in weaning each offspring when they reach about one-third their adult weight (Charnov and Berrigan 1993). Humans come in different sizes, but 4 to 7 years of nursing would be the weaning age for humans using this method of comparison, with boys generally being nursed longer than girls, and large-bodied populations nursing longer than small-bodied groups.

Weaning according to adult body size. Harvey and Clutton-Brock (1985) published a study of life-history variables in primates, including a formula for calculating age at weaning based on adult female body weight. The equation predicts an age at weaning for humans at between 2.8 and 3.7 years, depending on average adult female body weight, with larger-bodied populations nursing the longest.

Weaning according to gestation length. It is often reported in the literature that, among mammals in general, weaning age is approximately the same as the length of gestation (Lawrence 1989). By this criterion, weaning in humans might be expected to take place after only nine months of breastfeeding. However, this one-to-one relationship is greatly affected by the adult size of the animal. For many small-bodied primates, the duration of breastfeeding is shorter than the length of gestation. Among large-bodied primate species, the duration of breastfeeding far exceeds the average length of gestation. For humankind's closest relatives, the chimpanzee and the gorilla, the duration of breastfeeding is more than six times the length of gestation. Humans are among the largest of the primates, and share more than 98 percent of their genetic material with chimpanzees and gorillas. Based on these comparisons, an estimated natural age at weaning for humans would be a minimum of six times gestational length, or 4.5 years.

Weaning according to dental eruption. According to the research of Smith (1991), many primates wean their offspring when they are erupting their first permanent molars. First permanent molar eruption occurs around 5.5 to 6.0 years in modern humans. It is interesting to note that achievement of adult immune competence in humans also occurs at approximately six years of age, suggesting that throughout our recent evolutionary past, the active immunities provided by breast milk were normally available to the child until about this age (Fredrickson).

Here is another wonderful article on breastfeeding beyond toddlerhood.

Don't you find it funny that we force our children to wean from the breast at say, 1 or 2 years of age, saying they're too old to be breastfed, then turn around and offer them formula or cow's milk? If they don't need to drink any more milk, then what do we give them formula or cow's milk for? Why don't we just continue to give them breastmilk, which (a) is designed for humans, and (b) continues to provide numerous benefits both to mother and child?

Personally, I can't see myself breastfeeding an 8-year-old S. Even though I would like to breastfeed little S for as long as I can, my upper limit would probably be around 3 or 4 years. Call me selfish, but I've got places to go, cosmetic procedures to do (like have my hair straightened, and get a couple of tattoos -- eyebrow tattoos, that is). I also miss eating smoked salmon, a favorite food, and I'm a little sick of wearing my breastfeeding clothes.

That's why I applaud Veronika for nursing as long as she did. As she said in the video, a few years of her life set aside for her children is really a blip compared to the lifetime of benefits her children received while nursing. I also applaud her and her family's bravery, for they must have known that if they came out with their story, they would be ridiculed by modern society.

I am reminded by the episode in Desperate Housewives where Lynette Scavo sticks her nose in a breastfeeding colleague's business. She and her co-workers spy on the woman breastfeeding her 5-year-old, and Lynette's boss tells her the breastfeeding has to stop because it's too weird. Lynette intervenes by offering the kid milk from a carton, and the kid decides to self-wean. Well, in reality, I don't think it will be that easy to get a child to stop breastfeeding. In any case, I thought what Lynette did was wrong. At the time the episode aired, I wasn't a mom yet, and I was only vaguely aware of the benefits of breastfeeding. Yet, I felt that Lynette should have minded her own business, and if she didn't want to see a 5-year-old breastfeeding, then she should stop spying! I also noticed that the breastfeeding co-worker was portrayed as selfish, saying that she was breastfeeding in order to keep the weight off. I think it's a reflection on what modern society thinks of extended breastfeeding, and I'm glad there are people out there like Veronika who are actively getting people to open their minds.

8 comments:

paperseed.wordpress.com said...

I'm so glad you posted this. People can be so judgmental when it comes to ideas outside their realm of comfort or experience. I wasn't breastfed and have just recently learned of the many benefits. When my baby is born, my goal is to breastfeed for at least 3-6 months, but hopefully longer if all goes well. I'm a little nervous about it. :-)

mother in israel said...

Don't know if my comment went to you before.
Here is an LLL FAQ on tattoos and breastfeeding:
http://www.llli.org/FAQ/tattoos.html
And I'm not sure what the problem is with smoked salmon and hair-straightening either.
Anyway, I enjoyed your post.

G said...

Thanks for this post. An eye opener indeed! Hurrah to Veronika!

I'm still breastfeeding my son--now 26months, and i want a child-led weaning, i dont care what others will say! :)

Cess said...

Hi kumare jane/achi jane! guess who? learned of your blog from achi jenn. you're a mommy blogger pala :) such a useful blog you have here, ill be reading your articles to learn more about being a mommy na rin to better equip me with taking care of soon-to-be-called Baby F. hahaha Hi to Baby S and to Kumpare S also! :)

Jane said...

@paperseed, I wasn't breastfed either. I asked my mom why, and she said it wasn't common to breastfeed at that time. Too bad for us. :( Anyway, don't worry about it, you'll have lots of opportunities to practice once your baby is born! :) And go for longer, it'll be worth it!

@mother in israel, there is a risk of infection with tattooing, so I'd rather be done with breastfeeding before getting one (or two). As for smoked salmon, smoked foods have nitrates, so it's best to avoid them. Hair-straightening (or rebonding) uses harsh chemicals, and although I guess the risk of contamination is minimal, I'd rather not risk it. These are things that I don't have to have right now, so it's okay for me to wait. :) Anyway, glad you enjoyed my post!

@G, congratulations, you've made it to two years!!! :) You go, girl!

@Cess, hi kumare! :) Welcome to my home on the world wide web. Heehee. Have a healthy and happy pregnancy! :)

AEC said...

hi jane, this was an interesting read... like paperseed's goal, that was my goal too. now i'm past it and i'd like to continue till after one year. i don't know if i want to continue till two years though. maybe if i will exclusively pump at that time and i still have a supply. :)

Jane said...

Hi Mandy, yes, with your new Medela Freestyle!!! Hehe! I'm so envious. :)

My original goal was at least 1 year, and now that I've reached it, I'm aiming for at least 2! :)

Grace Overflowing said...

She is a legend. Not sure I could do it but all rights to her. My older boys weaned at 2 and I am still feeding my 22 mth old. As much as I would like to go past 2, I'm not sure if I could go as far as she has.

Bek xx