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Breastfeeding, To wean or not to wean?

Updated on September 20, 2016

That is the question!

Breastfeeding is one of the most natural, nurturing acts between mother and child!

It's Alive!

Breast-milk is actually a living substance, a sort of "super-food", full of infection fighting properties such as white blood cells and immunoglobins. It has the exact balance of calories from fats and proteins that a growing baby needs. And that balance innately changes throughout the baby's life to meet his or her nutritional demands. That is something that you can not get out of a can! So, it is no wonder that even the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and World Health Organization (WHO) are in agreement that breast-milk is a superior food over baby formula.

Our Babies Can Really Benefit from this "Super-food"!

Some health benefits of human milk for the newborn according to the American Academy of Pediatrics include but are not limited to, decreased diarrhea, respiratory infections, ear infections, meningitis, urinary tract infections, colitis, allergies, and diabetes. Some research studies have even suggested a decrease in the incidence of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) in breastfed babies. Human breast-milk is also correlated to enhanced cognitive development for the child.

Mothers Can too!

The nursing mother can enjoy some health benefits as well, some of these include a decreased risk of ovarian and breast cancer. Lactation (milk production) increases oxytocin levels, which help the uterus decrease in size at a much faster rate after giving birth, which may help a nursing mother return to her pre pregnancy weight in less time.

AAP and WHO give Mom's the Thumbs up!

The AAP recommends breastfeeding exclusively for the newborns first six months, and for up to a minimum of one year with age appropriate food supplementation. The World Health Organization recommends breastfeeding for at least two years. This tends to raise eyebrows for some individuals who are not used to the idea of nursing past one year.

While the decision to nurse your newborn may be obvious based on the beneficial effects for mother and child, the decision to continue to breast feed is one that may go unsupported for a new mother.

Why so low?

Despite the endorsement of the AAP, and WHO's recommendation for prolonged breastfeeding, the stats show that only about 60 percent of mothers in the US even choose to breastfeed at all. Less than 25 percent of mothers in the United States breastfeed until six months of age, and less than ten percent continue nursing until one year. Interestingly, statistics show that college educated women with higher incomes, thirty years of age and older, living in the mountain, and Pacific regions of the US are more likely to breastfeed for a longer duration.

While the facts are apparent that human breast-milk is a superior method of feeding for a newborn, there are reasons mothers either choose not to, or have not been successful at breastfeeding. These may include pain and discomfort for the mother, lack of support from family or doctors, or contraindications when medication is involved.

Are We Done Yet?

If you are among the mothers that have been successful at nursing your baby, you may be wondering how long is long enough? I know I have wondered this myself. I mean, if the AAP is recommending at minimum one year, and WHO is recommending at minimum two years, how long should this really go on for? I ask this lovingly of-course, after-all this is my child I am talking about. And he has grown quite fond of his breastfeeding. And while I never intended to make breastfeeding a career for myself, I suddenly realize that while I sit in my chair, with my child happily snuggled at my breast, I notice that his legs reach and nearly hang over the arm of the chair! And so I realize that I have obediently followed the WHO's recommendations without ever knowing it, and perhaps I can even say that I've become a bit of an over achiever, because here in my arms (and hanging over the chair) is a little dude of nearly 3 and a half years. I think to myself, "How did this go unnoticed?" Of-course I know my answer, "he is my baby, the youngest of three, the last baby I'll ever nurse, so enjoy this time that he still wants this special nurturing attachment to me."

Hence, this article and research was intended for my own benefit, and now hopefully insight for the reader as well. I have discovered that there are different methods of weaning.

Four Methods of Weaning

Abrupt or Forced Weaning

The "abrupt" or "forced" weaning method is a sudden end to breastfeeding. Mothers may find themselves in "unavoidable circumstances" and a sudden end to breastfeeding is necessary. Some reasons may include sudden illness or a separation from their baby, return to work, or medication that can be expressed through breast-milk and harmful to the child. Obviously, this method can be very stressful for mother and baby. The abrupt end to nursing is very traumatic for the baby, keeping in mind that breastfeeding is more than just for nourishment, but also provides comfort and security. It has also been suggested that "abrupt" or "forced" weaning may lead to habits such as thumb sucking, nail biting, or prolonged use of pacifiers. The mother may also experience engorged breasts which can become very painful and lead to breast infection.

The Gradual Wean

The "gradual" weaning method is a slow, gradual process of eliminating one feeding every few days and replacing it with other forms of nourishment and comfort. Gradually weaning a baby can be less stressful for the baby.

The Partial Wean

"Partial" weaning happens when a mother eliminates all feedings for a toddler except ones that are very important to the child, like to fall asleep, or comfort for a bump or bruised knee from a fall, or an upsetting situation for the toddler. This particular process unfolded for me and my son, without even realizing it. Nursing was always what I affectionately called my 'secret weapon' for preventing a full blown tantrum, or instantly calming a "screaming fit" for whatever reason.


Natural Weaning

Finally, there is "natural" weaning. This is the category I fall into, again-unplanned, but, never the less, here I am. Natural weaning happens when the child is allowed to nurse until he outgrows the need for the comfort it provides him. Allowing the child's own innately designed "internal clock" decide when its time to stop nursing. This can lead to "burn out" for a mom nursing a toddler. I can definitely say I have experienced that feeling. It does become frustrating at times for me, it seems like he will never stop on his own. My son has gone without nursing for a few days here and there, and I assume that we are finished with this level of our relationship, when suddenly he appears after playing with his brothers and asks in a way only he can ask, "a lil' tiny bit, then pop off, pwease".

My Revelation!

Speaking for myself, I guess I understand how important breastfeeding is to my child, and fulfilling his need for that comfort before he is ready to let go, regardless of my frustration at times, is not something I'd care to do. I'll have to remind myself to review this article and remember to be patient when my little guy "pops off" and asks for the "other side". I'll trust my instincts, and believe that meeting his needs now, will nurture greater independence later.


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