The other post got me thinking about how many misconceptions there are about full term breastfeeding. So, I wanted to clear a few of these things up. The AAP and WHO both have a recommended minimum age to nurse to. Many people feel that this is more of a maximum instead. However, the both organizations recommend to continue nursing past the recommended minimum for as long as mutually desired by both the mother and the child. There is nothing out there to suggest that full term nursing is psychologically damaging to the child. Many famous people were nursed beyond what many in the US consider "normal"; Michael Jordan, for example, nursed until age 3. There is a wonderful blog entry from a US citizen living in Mongolia that talks about the major differences between the two when it comes to nursing in general. The very first line states that a famous Mongolian quote states that the best wrestlers are those who nurse until age 6. Considering that wrestling is the national sport, that would be the same as if we in the US were to say that the best football players were nursed until age 6.
1) It is natural. If you look at the development of our children and compare it to the development of all the other mammals, it's pretty much the same despite different rates of growth. Every other mammal nurses their young until about 2/3 of the way until puberty. In humans, this falls between the ages of 5 and 8. Coincidentally, this is about the same time that the milk or baby teeth start to fall out.
Some people have suggested that this information may be incorrect due to when puppies and kittens tend to wean naturally. I tried to do a search to see when puppies would wean on their own and, no matter how I tried to word it, only came up with articles on how to wean puppies. Out of those, only one mentioned when a dog left to their own device would actually finish weaning and it stated that a dog in the wild will nurse for several months; birthing in the spring and still be nursing come the fall. I then did a search for when mammals wean. I found this article which suggests many different theories for determining when mammals wean. The one most relevant to this discussion was based on other primates which suggests the natural age for weaning occurs when the molars start to come in; about 5 1/2 to 6 years of age.
2) Many people seem to think that those who nurse full term will nurse forever. They won't. Nature provides the cutoff. When the milk teeth fall out the shape of the jaw changes. This makes nursing uncomfortable and the children will wean themselves. You do not have to worry about the mother going off to college with their young!
3) Contrary to popular opinion, it has nothing to do with attempting to keep the chidren babies. It is not "just for mom's benefit". Trust me. It is almost impossible to get an infant to nurse when they don't want to. Translate that lack of desire to a 30/40/50 pound child and imagine trying to force them to nurse. That mom is going to get seriouisly injured.
4) It is not just about nutrition. A young child who still nurses is also eating regular meals. However, young children are notoriously picky eaters. On top of that, there are very few families in the US that eat a perfectly balanced diet on a regular basis. Breastmilk is perfect nutrition geared specifically for that child. They will get a lot more out of nursing than they will commercial vitamins. On top of that, nursing provides a stronger immune system. Anything that mom is already producing antibodies for are getting passed to the child through the milk.
5) I often see people suggesting that it is inappropriate to provide the milk directly from the breast past a certain age and many suggest simply pumping and giving it to their young child in a cup. While this seems to be a nice simple solution, there are quite a few flaws in it. Aside from the fact that many women don't respond to a pump, there are other challenges. Namely, the fact that a woman's milk supply is constantly regulating. The older the child is, the harder it becomes for her to respond to a pump; specifically if they have not been pumping regularly throughout their child's life. To simply start pumping after the child is 1 or 2 is almost impossible. On top of that, there are special receptors in the areola that essentially analyze the child's saliva. This tells the mom's body what the child's nutritional needs are and allows her to make milk tailored to the child's needs.
6) No, the mother isn't likely to pull their nursing child out of class to offer them the breast. At that age, they are probably down to a very low number of nursing sessions; 1 or 2 most likely. Typically, it is around times that the child is preparing for bed.
Just because it is something you may not be comfortable with does not mean it is bad. Both my children weaned just after turning 2. With DS, he'd hurt himself and I offered. He covered my chest while saying "No, mommy. I done." He never nursed again. Had either of my children chosen to continue nursing, I probably would have let them. This is not to say that anyone's choices on when a child is weaned are wrong. The decision to continue nursing at any point in the nursing relationship should come only from those involved; ie the mother and child. If the child is wishing to continue, mom's decision should be based on her knowledge of the benefits of continuing to nurse and weigh it against the benefits of stopping.