"Breast is best." The concept is endorsed by parents and infant nutrition experts alike. And with good reason. The American Academy of Pediatrics "strongly encourages breast-feeding for virtually all infants as the exclusive feeding for the first six months of life, continuing with complementary foods for at least the first year of life. Thereafter, breast-feeding should continue for as long as mutually desired by mother and child."
According to recent figures, 50 percent of moms in the United States nurse their newborns. But in spite of the AAP's recommendation, by the time infants in our country reach 6 months, only 22 percent are still breast-fed. What happens?
For some moms, breast-feeding is more of a struggle than a joy. I know: my first baby was so uninterested in breast-feeding she was happy to suck my nose or any other flap of skin that happened to be handy. By the time Christy was 4 months old, bottle feeding was a welcome option.
When I conducted my doctoral dissertation research on breast-feeding, I found support, encouragement and information within the medical community practically nonexistent for nursing moms. Because breast-feeding often falls between the cracks of obstetrics and pediatrics, many nursing mothers don't know where to turn with questions and concerns. If nursing is difficult, it's often easier to simply throw in the towel than search for help.
Cultural attitudes also factor into a mother's decision to stop nursing before her child is 12 months old. Researchers tell us the worldwide average for weaning a child is 4.2 years. Yet in our society, some would consider nursing a preschooler to be inappropriate, if not vulgar.
Despite these factors, some mothers choose to nurse well into their child's second or even third year. If you're one of them, there are many ways you can make sure it's an experience with which both you and your child can feel comfortable.
Surround yourself with support. An official statement alone from the AAP won't provide the encouragement you need when breast-feeding a toddler under the disapproving eyes of relatives. Find and attend meetings of a lactation support group. You'll appreciate the built-in encouragement.
Keep your obstetrician and your child's pediatrician informed about your continued breast-feeding. Observers predict that medical personnel will encourage nursing older toddlers only after hearing about numerous "success stories" first-hand.
Like breast-feeding, weaning is a personal decision. I weaned Christy at 4 months, Angela at 18 months, and Matthew at 2 1/2 years. Base your decision to wean on what seems best for your child, your family and you.
At some point, weaning will be the right decision. As your child eats more table food, he will begin to wean and your milk supply will decrease gradually. Many moms who nurse long-term don't deliberately decrease fluids or take any additional steps to accelerate weaning. The process occurs so naturally over a period of time, there is no discomfort for you or abrupt emotional jolt for you or your child.
I knew my time nursing Matthew had ended when he climbed off my lap one evening and said, "Aw gone." But I also knew that I had invested 2 1/2 years of my life giving a gift only a mother could offer.
?Dr. Mary Manz Simon
Author, speaker, mother of three
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