Dear Dr. Heather, Does breastfeeding past 2 years of age encourage dependency? I know a child who is still breastfeeding and has become very whiny and attached to her mother. The mother is making no effort to wean the child. Is this type of emotional attachment healthy for the child? She still wakes up to nurse during the night and sleeps in the parent’s bed.
Concerned about a child
This is a polarizing issue that tends to bring out strong opinions. There is a community that promotes an approach called "Attachment Parenting", based on the work of well-known pediatrician and author William Sears, MD, and one of they key tenets of this approach says that "extended breastfeeding" (past the age of two years) is recommended and important to the development of a child to promote a solid sense of safety and security. However, their key tenets are only based loosely on well-known child development research, and Attachment Parenting certainly has it's critics.
One of the things I do like about Attachment Parenting (AP) is it's understanding of the cultural differences that exist in families around the world, and the promotion of various ways of raising a family that can resonate more fully with various non-Western cultures. For instance, many Asians traditionally -- and happily -- share a family bed, or a family bedroom, as is suggested by AP. I also like the fact that AP promotes the reliance on the family's own resources to know what is best for their children; we don't have to rely on outside "experts" for everything. AP is also well-known for it's insistence that the attachment between infant and mother is essential to the development of a healthy baby, both physically and emotionally. That message sometimes gets lost, or diluted, in Western cultures.
The problem I have with AP is that it's adherents often tend to be quite orthodox in their beliefs. I myself have been sternly lectured for simply using a stroller (as opposed to "baby-wearing", another AP belief), as well as for using a bottle to feed my baby in public. Of course, this is the opposite of the intolerant demagogues who criticize breastfeeding in public -- it's their shared judgmental strictness that bothers me most.
The other concern I have is that it takes a blanket, "one-size-fits-all" approach to all children. Some babies don't want to be held all the time. Some babies need time without physical contact to "decompress" from all that physical stimulation. Some babies don't do well breastfeeding either, and many babies sleep better when they're not disturbed by the direct physical contact of their parents. And your approach to raising your babies has to be dependent, at least partially, on the unique constitution of those babies. You've seen me write about sensory differences here at BabyShrink, and I know far too many babies who have these quirks and preferences to be comfortable giving a blanket statement about "baby-wearing", breastfeeding, or co-sleeping. In our family, only 1 of our 3 children enjoyed being held all the time; the other two needed "time-outs" from direct physical contact in order to look around and "process" all of that physical contact. They (and I) both felt better for a little break now and again, and I used bouncy seats, strollers and cribs regularly for these breaks. It simply isn't fair to criticize parents who accurately judge the needs of their babies to include a little "down time", or to make them afraid that they risk their child's optimal development if they use a stroller or have their crib in their own room.
If you've read other BabyShrink posts, you won't be surprised to hear me say that I strongly support the uniqueness of each individual family to best decide the individual needs of each of their unique babies. And to that end, I say that if it works for a family to have a family bed, or for mom to breastfeed for over two years, I'm not going to criticize that. However, I have met many families who suffer negative consequences of making those decisions, but stick with them in the false belief that it's what's best for their children. Often, an AP family will come to see me for a problem related to the development of their toddler. When I start to gather more information, guess what? Mom is exhausted, usually because she has been unable to sleep through the night since the day her baby was born; she's often still nursing several times a night. And her husband is grumpy because he can't get any "alone time" with his wife, and he's sick of being kicked through the night by a toddler who gets bigger by the day. So mom is beyond exhausted, dad is frustrated and distant, and the toddler becomes the focus of the problem. Everyone suffers in this scenario. In this situation, my advice often includes the suggestion to transition the toddler into his own bed, in his own room, to restore some balance in the lives of the couple. The relationship needs attention, too! If the parents don't have a strong relationship, the development of the child will surely suffer. And if the child needs to sleep in his own bed, and be weaned from breastfeeding, that is a small price to pay if it serves the purpose of bringing the parents back into a more harmonious relationship.
So, "Concerned" reader, I can't say that "extended breastfeeding" will hurt the development of the child, without knowing all the other factors in the family. It remains the responsibility of the family to determine what's best for them -- and for their child. But I certainly don't promote Attachment Parenting as the "be-all, end-all" guide to what's best for your child. Only you can decide that!
Aloha, Dr. Heather The BabyShrink Mom of Four, Parenting Expert AND MAKE SURE YOU CHECK OUT THE COMMENTS TO THIS POST FOR AN EXTENDED, INTERESTING DISCUSSION AMONG READERS!