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Why extended nursing by mothers should be encouraged

One of the benefits of breastfeeding beyond 12 months is that it helps raise a confident, emotionally-sound kid

The decision to go for extended nursing should be left to the mother as she understands her child's nutritional needs.
The decision to go for extended nursing should be left to the mother as she understands her child's nutritional needs. (Pexels/Anna Shvets)

Nursing is a unique relationship between the mother and child. It's one where both are co-dependent on each other. Therefore, the length of this practice must be left to the discretion of the mother and child rather than it being under constant public scrutiny and evaluation.

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Whether it ends at three months or passes the recommended six months exclusive mark; whether it is a conscious effort on the nursing mother’s part to continue breastfeeding till 12 months or the emotional requirement of a two- year-old to night feed himself to sleep. The power to decide the length of nursing lies purely in the mother’s hand depending on her child’s best needs.

What is extended nursing?

There is no set time frame or specific definition to explain the length of extended nursing, rather it is termed so, based on various cultural demarcations surrounding the nursing mother and child. Therefore, ‘extended breastfeeding’ would typically mean to nurse beyond the usual practice of one’s own ‘culture and surroundings’.

In most cultures, breastfeeding beyond 12 months is looked upon as ‘prolonged’. This is contrary to the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) recommendations to exclusively breastfeed until six months and continue for up to 2 years, or for as long as mutually desired by the nursing parent and child.

Society looks upon ‘extended nursing’ as an emotional dependency of the child on the mother, deeming it crippling to the child’s emotional growth and development. Studies, however, indicate that as a toddler is grappling to understand the world and deal with confusing emotions, nursing can help soothe the child and regulate their emotions, positively comforting them. Similar to what a pacifier, or in some cases, thumb sucking would do. This, in turn, helps raise a happy, confident, emotionally-equipped child.

During growth spurts where a child explores new foods, solid intake may be limited owing to issues like phases of teething, illness etc. Here, continued breastfeeding brings along another major advantage of being able to substitute for nutritional gaps in the child’s evolving palette. 

Extended nursing also helps fight off infections with better immunity as it enables the transfer of antibodies. Above all, it has proven to benefit the mother by reducing her risk of developing breast cancer, ovarian cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, high blood pressure and gestational diabetes. 

Like most other journeys of motherhood , this parenting decision of the mother too comes as a double edge: extended nursing is frowned upon as much as the decision of another mother to use formula to keep up with her dwindling breast milk supply. Societal pressure on mothers is a challenge either way, and puts undeniable pressure on them for things that lie beyond the public scope of acceptance and scrutiny. 

The way I see it, nursing beyond one year is a milestone that must be celebrated for families who do achieve it. Mothers must be appreciated for it rather than being looked down upon for their decision to do so. 

Dr. Vanshika Gupta Adukia is a pregnancy/childbirth and lactation specialist, a pelvic floor physiotherapist and founder of Therhappy, Mumbai.

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