Ladies, we are born with boobs. And those boobs have a purpose – breastfeeding.
That purpose is not (as was once told to me by my favorite five-year old) “to look like we have boobs.” No. It’s to feed babies, for as long as we are willing and able.
Breastfeeding is great for both moms and kids. For moms, 2 years of breastfeeding throughout her life is linked to significant decreases in rates of breast cancer. The CDC also reports that breastfeeding reduces the rates of heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and ovarian cancer in women.
More often we talk about the benefits to our babies. Breastfeeding children significantly reduces the rates of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (S
IDS), lowers the rates of colds, flus and ear infections, lowers the risk of asthma, obesity and Type 2 diabetes.
Breast milk is an amazing substance.
So when is it safe to stop breastfeeding? What is the best cut off for mom and baby? The answer is more complicated than you may think.
Stopping breastfeeding after one year or more
When I was 10 my mom told me about a co-worker of hers from Europe who still breastfed her child at four years old. As an American, this was really odd to my mom because in the 80s and 90s we were still re-learning the importance of breast milk.
The fact is, that as long as you are producing milk, it is safe and healthy to give it to your child. According to a 2016 study published in Maternal and Child Nutrition, breast milk has:
“…a significant increase (P < 0.05) in the concentration of total protein, lactoferrin, lysozyme, Immunoglobulin A, oligosaccharides and sodium in longitudinal samples of mother’s milk between 11 and 17 months postpartum, while zinc and calcium concentrations declined, and no changes were observed in lactose, fat, iron and potassium.”
Of course, this isn’t exclusively breastfeeding. Children at this age are supplementing their diets with breast milk and mainly relying on age appropriate foods. Many of the benefits of breastfeeding over two years are psychological – bonding between mother and child – or physiologically beneficial for the mother.
The anti-cancer benefits of breastfeeding occur around 2 years worth of feeding (though, if you’re breastfeeding for less than two years note that this is two years over the course of your lifetime, not necessarily all at once.) During the duration of breastfeeding, bone demineralization decreases as well, reducing your risk of osteoporosis.
So there’s nothing wrong with breastfeeding past two years and no reason for you to stop unless all parties are ready to make the decision. Remember, though, that if you make the decision to breastfeed past one year, federal breastfeeding protections end at one year so you’ll lose your midday pumps which may impact supply.
Stopping at one year
Of course, there are a lot of societal implications to breastfeeding a child past one year. Sometimes people around us get creeped out an no amount of #normalizebreastfeeding Instagramming is going to change that any time soon. So many mothers make the decision to try for a one year milestone and that’s great!
In fact, one year is exactly what the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends. From 6 months to a year, the AAP suggests that mothers breastfeed their infants while gradually introducing other solid foods to the child’s diet and only continue breastfeeding past one year if it is mutually desired by both child and mother.
It’s the “mutually desired” part I’d like to address here. Sometimes kids aren’t interested in nursing beyond one year. And often mothers, especially working mothers, are worn down by pumping schedules. And there’s another aspect to nursing beyond 6 months many mothers forget – teeth. Bravery is putting your freshly bruised nipple back in the mouth of a tired, hungry infant who is teething.
Forcing breastfeeding beyond one year when one party is no longer interested is going to negatively impact one of the best parts of breastfeeding: the bonding. It’s hard to get that oxytocin cycle rolling if you’re both irritable.
If breastfeeding is going to be a struggle, engender bitterness, annoyance and strife – stop. If breastfeeding is going to continue to be an enjoyable experience – if you’re going to love the snuggles, the hit of oxytocin and you don’t mind the pumping schedule at work – keep going. It’s that simple.
Upon return to work (6 – 12 weeks in America)
I’ve pumped two places: a stairwell at one job that was freezing in the winter and is sweltering in the summer and a treatment room at a spa, sitting on the floor so I could reach an outlet. Neither is ideal but I am stubborn.
Sometimes the difficulties surrounding pumping just aren’t worth it though. For one mom, the stairwell just got too cold. For another, inconsistent breaks at the spa negatively impacted her supply. And we’re the lucky ones! For some moms the fight they have to put up to defend their baby’s milk supply (and prevent mastitis) is asinine.
Remember that I’m a Minnesota mom and a Minnesota acupuncturist so I’m going to be speaking from a Minnesotan perspective. My pumping break at both jobs is a half an hour. A half an hour to set up the pump, get situated, hopefully express fully, put everything away and wash my hands.
“….Minnesota law and federal law require employers to provide a space shielded from view, near your work area (if reasonable), free from intrusion, and that includes access to an electrical outlet. The space cannot be a bathroom and should be made available at the same time as other break times if possible. “
That sounds great until you realize those other breaks are you bathroom breaks if you’re getting paid, and that Minnesota law specifically means your unpaid breaks.
“An employer must provide reasonable unpaid break time each day to an employee who needs to express breast milk for her infant child. The break time must, if possible, run concurrently with any break time already provided to the employee. An employer is not required to provide break time under this section if to do so would unduly disrupt the operations of the employer.”
Many companies will provide paid breaks for mothers per company policy but you don’t know what you don’t know, and you’ll never know if you don’t ask. Originally, I was going to have to pump on my unpaid lunch breaks. Fortunately a manager discussed pumping with HR and got me one paid half hour pumping break. I’m incredibly grateful, but…
That’s it. One break over eight hours when I should be pumping every three hours to maintain supply. This is why so many working mothers, especially those in middle and low class jobs where breaks are handled more strictly (and sometimes illegally) stop pumping so soon.
Even in Minnesota where working mothers enjoy some of the best nursing rights in the nation, it’s hard to pump. And it’s really easy to understand why so many mothers make the decision to stop.
Never breastfeeding to begin with
Sometimes breastfeeding isn’t in the cards. I want to tell you, from the bottom of my heart, that if you love on your baby, snuggle your baby, play with your baby and your baby is growing and happy, that’s ok.
That’s an unpopular opinion in the granola community, but hey, I’m only moderately granola. I want things to be healthy and natural, but sometimes they have to be healthy and supplemented and that’s what modern technology is for.
I have a friend who is a parenting role model of mine. She’s in STEM, she’s smart, well-researched, grounded and mother to one of the greatest little girls I know.
She had a rough pregnancy. While she managed anxiety before pregnancy, the cascade of hormone changes triggered her anxiety to go into overdrive causing additional physical issues. In order to save the pregnancy, doctors decided that she needed to be medicated. But her medical team knew that this mental change wouldn’t get better post-pregnancy. In fact, there was a good chance that post-pregnancy her challenges could be life-threatening. So together, my friend and her medical team put together a plan to start her on a different regimen of medications immediately after birth.
One problem – these medications were contraindicated during breastfeeding due to the danger they posed for a growing infant.
My friend didn’t make this decision easily, but what it came down to was that she needed to be a present and healthy mother, and while the AAP recommends breast milk until 6 months of age, many babies are formula fed, and they thrive. Her choice came down to risking her health (and possibly her life) while breastfeeding or formula feeding. She chose to be there for her child and feed her formula.
That is the decision of a mother.
The birth was not ideal. It was long, tiring and traumatic. Instead of having the golden hour and skin to skin she wanted, her daughter was taken from her to get checked while she underwent additional procedures. It was an exhausting ordeal that was complicated by starting her new medication regimen.
The reason I’m telling this story is because I want to set the stage for what happened next. I wanted you to know how much she struggled with her decision. How much she researched it, how hard she and her team tried to find alternatives, and how tired, and hurt she was when the following happened:
In her exhausted, lonely and hormonal and chemically changing state a representative of a pro-breastfeeding group came into her room to tell her that she made the wrong decision. To tell her that she was hurting her daughter and putting her at risk for health problems and mental health issues down the road.
This representative came back later to try and tell my friend that her medical team was wrong and that they should look at other medications that were breastfeeding friendly. And when this representative was informed that the medications she was suggesting wouldn’t be as effective, the representative told my friend that that was a sacrifice she needed to make as a mother.
When she came back a third time to shame my friend into going against medical advice, my already depressed and anxious friend had to ask her furious husband to throw the representative out.
This is mom shame. Normally it comes from our friends, family and society at large. But this was a person to person attack on a woman in a vulnerable position.
My friend stuck with her plan and her daughter grew like a weed. She’s smart as a whip (sometimes terrifyingly so), strong and fierce. And that girl’s mom had ornamental boobs.
So what if your boobs are ornamental?
The success of a mother shouldn’t be tied up in how she feeds her baby, but rather that her baby is fed. Not how she loves her baby, but rather that her baby is loved.
Remember that parenting and health choices are complicated, and there is no one size fits all answer. Breast milk is absolutely a magical substance and if you can swing it, make it work for you as long as possible.
But if the breastfeeding journey starts to negatively impact your quality of life or your baby’s quality of life, take a step back and evaluate your priorities. Talk to a friend, your mom, your grandmother – talk to someone who has made this decision because guess what? You’re probably not alone.
And if you have to stop, recognize your struggle. Honor the difficulty that went into your decision. Know that you didn’t make the decision lightly. The hate you get for making the decision to feed your baby is mom shame and I give you permission to ignore it.
Fed is best. Loved is best.
You’re doing great, mama.
Disclaimer: I am an acupuncturist in the state of Minnesota, and the information falls within my scope of practice in my state. However, unless I have directed you here as your homework I am probably not your acupuncturist. The information in this post is for general purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. As always, check with your own acupuncturist or primary care provider before making any lifestyle changes. This post does not create a patient-practitioner relationship and I am not liable for any losses or damages resulting or relating to the content in this post.
Resources and Links
Pubmed article linking breastfeeding to reduced breast cancer rates
CDC page on breastfeeding benefits for the health of the mother
Maternal and Child Nutrition article on the components of breast milk
5 FR 80073 – Reasonable Break Time for Nursing Mothers
American Academy of Pediatrics recommendations for breastfeeding
Minnesota law 181.939 – Nursing Mothers
Public Law Health Center on Nursing for Minnesota Mothers
Jessica Gustafson is a licensed acupuncturist in St Paul, MN specializing in women’s health and fertility. She loves working with patients through the Health Foundations Birth Center on Grand Avenue in St Paul as well as doing home visits in the Twin Cities area. Check out the services page for more information!
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