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Ask Dr. Sears: Extended Breastfeeding—Handling the Criticism

Q. I'm still nursing my two-year-old daughter. We both love the bond created by breastfeeding, and neither of us is ready to give it up. However, most of my friends and family strongly think it's time to wean her. How can I cope with the disapproval?

A. If it's working for you and your child, and your mothering instinct tells you it's right—it's right! In my opinion, you're a health-savvy, modern mom and it seems that your friends and relatives are old-fashioned and misinformed. As a pediatrician and parent, it grieves me to hear well-meaning critics ask a breastfeeding mother, "You're still nursing?" Know that you're actually making a wise, long-term investment in your child's health. Here are a few things to remember that will help you handle any unwarranted criticism:

Science is on your side.

I have read many medical journals with articles proving the long-term health benefits of breastfeeding. The incidence of many illnesses, both childhood and adult, are lowered by breastfeeding—diabetes, heart disease and central nervous system degenerative disorders (such as multiple sclerosis) to name a few. The most fascinating studies show that the longer and more frequently a mom nurses her baby, the smarter her child is likely to become. The brain grows more during the first two years of life than any other time, nearly tripling in size from birth to two years of age. It's clearly a crucial time for brain development, and the intellectual advantage breastfed babies enjoy is attributed to the "smart fats" unique to mom's breast milk (namely, omega-3 fatty acid, also known as DHA). From head to toe, babies who breastfeed for extended periods of time are healthier overall. They tend to have leaner bodies with less risk of obesity. They also have improved vision, since the eye is similar to the brain in regards to nervous tissue. They have better hearing due to a lower incidence of ear infections. Their dental health is generally good, since the natural sucking action of the breastfed infant helps incoming teeth align properly. Intestinal health is also much better than those of non-breastfed babies, as breast milk is easier to digest, reducing spit-up, reflux and constipation. A toddler's immune system functions much better since breastmilk contains an immunoglobulin (IGA) which coats the lining of the intestines, which helps prevent germs from penetrating through. Even the skin of these babies is smoother and more supple.

World opinion is on your side.

The World Health Organization (WHO) officially recommends mothers breastfeed until three years of age. (Yes, you did read that right!) Even the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends mothers should breastfeed "at least until one year of age and then as long as baby and mother mutually want to."

It's better for your health.

Extended breastfeeding reduces the risk of uterine, ovarian and breast cancers. Breastfeeding women also have a lower incidence of osteoporosis later in life.

It's better for your toddler's behavior.

We have many extended breastfeeders in our pediatric practice, and I have noticed that breastfed toddlers are easier to discipline. Breastfeeding is also an exercise in baby reading, which enables a mother to more easily read her baby's cues and intervene before a discipline situation gets out of hand. Nursing is a wonderful calming tool on days when Mom needs to relax and to stave off an impending toddler tantrum.

Blame it on your doctor.

I have noticed that one of the easiest ways to silence critics is the phrase: "My doctor advised me to." You can go on to explain that your doctor told you about all the recent research extolling the benefits of extended breastfeeding.

Let your child silence the critics.

Once your friends and relatives see the benefits of your breastfeeding bond, your growth as a mother and the emotional, intellectual and physical health of your child, they will serve as convincing testimonies to the value of extended breastfeeding.

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