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Weaning … and Free Learning

In How on 27 October 2011 at 3:33 am

My weaning story, originally titled “Weaning: Fountain of Free Learning,” was edited and published in Breastfeeding Today, October 2011 here on page 14. I think they did a decent job condensing.  Here is what I wrote in 2009:

Weaning: Fountain of Free Learning

Weaning: Fountain of Free Learning

     We often hear that nursing a baby provides not only food but also love, comfort and immunity.  As a mother, I found it was all this and more.  I discovered breastfeeding to be a quintessential experience of free learning, right up to and including child-led graduating.   Natural, free, unscheduled, ungraded, untested and self-guided, the experience of breastfeeding gives the child far more than nutrition or even the oft-remarked “brain-boosting DHA.”  Reflecting back on nursing my daughter, I find that it gave her precious time, space and context to learn numerous life skills – not only eating, but also ways to understand her body, her mind and the world around her.  No one could give her a certificate that she had learned.  She moved on when she was ready.

*   *   *   *  *

It is over year since my daughter’s last breastfeeding.  She weaned over a period of 2-3 months, as the gaps between nursings became longer and more frequent … and then I realized it was no longer a gap.  It was all.  One June day when I first noticed a gap of more than a week, I couldn’t resist asking my daughter about it, though I was not sure if I was “supposed” to bring it up at all.  She simply said, “I don’t need it anymore.”  (She did nurse a few more times in July and August.)  My husband gasped, “what?  but you are supposed to have ampa (short for amma-palu, which in Telugu means mama-milk).”  They both giggled.

At the time I hardly talked to anyone about it. I have always been vocal about breastfeeding, calmly answering people who were shocked to see me breastfeed and NIP (nurse-in-public) well past the World Health Organization’s recommended minimum of 2 years.  Though I was bursting with it, what time or place to bring up the story?  Most of my family and friends might not have known she was “still” nursing, or even thought about it.   Without planning to, I did pour out to one friend, a fleet-footed newlywed engineering consultant in Washington, DC, whose views on breastfeeding or motherhood I knew not in the slightest.   She listened.   We laughed through moist eyes.   Later one day, entirely by luck, I found myself in the library on the day of our monthly La Leche League meeting.  I shared my experience.  Recently I again attended LLL after more than a year’s gap and a couple of moms remembered my story.  They had understood (of course).

They encouraged me to “write it down.”  And so here it is.

I always knew that I would breastfeed.  My mother was in La Leche League when my little sister was born and I went to my first LLL meeting  (as an adult) while I was pregnant. Though we had difficulties in the beginning, we got established after a few days and nursing was smooth after that.   There were ups and downs, of course.  At nine months my daughter loved idlis (steamed rice-and-bean cakes) so much I worried that she was not nursing enough.  At 15 months there was a time when she did not nurse for more than 24 hours and I worried because I knew that was too early to wean.  At 22 months she was nursing like a baby, waking up every 2 hours at night and all.  (Soon after the nursing spurt she had a growth spurt.)  Through all these ups and downs, I never lost confidence in nursing; moreover I had terrific support from mothering.com/discussions and La Leche League online community forums, even though I knew few nursing moms in real life.

When my daughter was three I observed that she was nursing 3-6 times / day.  To sleep, to wake up, once in the middle, and often a couple of times during the day.  I remember noting that it did not seem to be tapering off in any way.  Could this actually end?

When she was 3 ½, I was most grateful that she was nursing.  That winter she got sick three times in three different places  – Delhi, Bombay, and Rasuru (Orissa), each time with high fever, and once with measles.  Each time she nursed right through her illnesses.  Though she was sick and needed to direct all her energy towards healing, she was not uncomfortable.  Through breastfeeding, mostly in her sleep, she was getting plenty of fluids, rest and nutrients.   She certainly couldn’t keep any food down (we tried that too).

Nursing helped our daughter to develop healthy eating habits.  She ate on her own, right from her introduction to ragi (millet) at 6 months, and soft fruits like banana and sapota, soft vegetables like peas, sweet potatoes, plantain, beets, and onwards to grains, beans, and beyond.  She ate whole grains from the beginning – whole millet, brown rice, whole wheat bread, mung and urad dal were also unpeeled.   We simply served her food and she ate as much as she wanted, with her own hand.  We usually ate together.  If she needed more time she would eat by herself as I took care of other work.  Or read a book.  Eating was always a happy and relaxed experience; never a chore, either for her or for us.  Through mother’s milk she became familiar with the diverse tastes of all that I ate; I think that served as a preview to whet her appetite for the real thing. Since she was breastfeeding I knew she was getting her nutrition so it did not matter how much solid food she ate.  With this freedom she embraced, at her own pace, the array of whole, natural foods we prepared.

Weaning from the breast signified not only a transition from one source of food to another, but also a transition in the way my daughter understood herself and dealt with the world. The basic ability to gauge one’s own hunger and satiety, cultivated at the breast, will serve one well at the plate.  Over the years I came to recognize that breastfeeding offers so much more than nutrition.  It offers immunity not only to germs but also to excessive stimuli from the environment.  It nurtures one’s sense of wholeness, it is comfort after a fall or stress, and of course, it is a warm cozy place to let down one’s guard and sleep.  The world offers alternatives for all of these functions, and the child who learns to avail these at her own pace will utilize them wisely.

Because breastfeeding often required me to take my daughter to work, it allowed her to be in interesting environments observing adults busy in various activities.   Also, it gave adults a chance to share time and space with a child and accept a nursing toddler as normal.  One small step towards building our continuum society.

Around age four, I again noticed that she was nursing nearly every night and sometimes during the day as well.  I wondered how long she would nurse, but did little more than wonder.  Once when she skipped a day I spent hours writing in my journal.  What does this mean?  But the next day she was back; meaning was forgotten.

It started soon after her fifth birthday.  Till then she was going strong with no signs of tapering off.  Two weeks later however, I observed that she’d skipped several days.  Was I ready for this?  I couldn’t say she was too young.  She was even past the oft-quoted “worldwide average” of 4.2 years.  So what was I missing?

Wasn’t I now supposed to be celebrating – increased wardrobe choice, one less mile to go before I sleep?  Sure, there would be plenty of days ahead to enjoy that.  Now I was immersed in a rush of feelings, and savoring that rush.   It passes all too quickly.

The author nursing her daughter at the grand canyon, Arizona.

The author nursing her daughter while on a hike.

Aravinda Pillalamarri, 2009

 

Animal milk for children?

In Yes / No on 19 September 2013 at 4:00 pm

Is animal milk (cow or buffalo) essential for a child’s growth?

- Mamma of 2-year old from Hyderabad

Well, of course it depends on whose child it is!  I am sure the zebra, elephant, deer and cow below would each tell you with full confidence that her milk was essential for her child’s growth!

Read the rest of this entry »

How children learn to eat

In How on 23 July 2013 at 4:12 am

How often do we hear that children won’t eat?  No one loves this message more than the food industry, which is ready to jump in with factory-tested flavours and bliss points, adding salt, fat and sugar, flavor, color and stabilizer in indsutrially calibrated quantities to design foods that hold mass appeal.  “Kids today don’t eat food!” declares an advertisement for a popular packaged meal.   On the screen we see a child pushing away a plate of vegetables, dal and roti and brightening up considerably when the packaged bliss comes forth in steaming digitally enhanced ringlets.

How often have we seen parents or grandparents run behind a child with a bowl of food or hire someone to perform this task?   Read the rest of this entry »

Nurturing Good Eating Habits

In How on 27 June 2013 at 8:00 pm

Today’s India Together article “The Obesity Epidemic: Are Parents to Blame?” raises the question of how parents can encourage good eating habits.

While the article raises useful points, it unfortunately retains a top-down approach of parents dictating to children or experts dictating to parents.  This will not work.    What will work is for parents to trust their children from birth.   They neither need to tell their children to eat nor tell them not to eat.

The article touches on the importance of breastfeeding, starting with exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months, but does not recognize the full scope of breastfeeding to help nurture good eating habits.  The article quotes Dr.Vinod Jacob Cherian who says: “The child should be fed every three hours or so which works out to about eight feeds a day.”   He goes on to suggest that mothers who exceed this number may be “overfeeding” their babies, warning that “A baby will suckle even if it is not hungry.”

In fact, one should encourage mothers to trust their babies, not to limit breastfeeding according to the clock.  Mothers should trust their bodies, which naturally produce milk of the right quality and quantity according to signals from the baby.  Milk varies by time of day, frequency and length of feeding, each time adjusting the fat, protein, immunoglobulins and other components according to need.  See Volume and Frequency of Breastfeedings and Fat Content of Breast Milk Throughout the Day (Pediatrics Vol. 117 No. 3 March 1, 2006).

Not only is three hours a long interval compared to how soon breastmilk is digested, especially in a tiny stomach, but as important to remember is that breastfeeding is not about hunger alone.   Breastfeeding is the foundation of developing trust and communication, with one’s own body and with the rest of the world.  Breastfeeding is the way we learn how food tastes, and how it makes us feel.

Breastfeeding a way to be close to one’s origins and gain confidence while exploring the wider world.  Comfort feeding is important for baby and the sucking also helps build supply ahead of growth spurts or to get through infections that may never manifest as full blown illnesses, because they are nipped in the bud thanks to breastfeeding. Mother may not know about these, but baby’s body knows what to do.

Breastfeeding is more than transfer of food from mother to baby. It is also the time when baby learns how to recognize and express her needs, how it feels to be hungry or full, what to do about it. Baby should decide when to breastfeed – guidance based on the clock or counting the feedings per day takes the decision away from the baby who is not counting and not looking at clocks.

When you learn to trust your baby to feed as needed, you will also trust your growing child to eat as needed. The child will in turn tune into the signals from his or her own body and trust himself or herself to respond accordingly.

There is *no* need to tell a child how much to eat. People who tell children:

“eat”
“eat quickly”
“eat more”
“good girl / good boy … eat”

are doing no service to the child’s health and growth. Children should be in charge of their own eating.  Parents should trust them.

The second way breastfeeding helps a child develop healthy eating habits is by serving as a safety net to ensure all nutritional needs are met while baby explores foods at a comfortable pace.   As long as one is breastfeeding, there is no need to ensure that baby eats “enough” solid foods, and baby can sometimes take more or less, assured of getting the rest through mother’s milk.  Baby can decide how much is enough.

During these early years when babies and children are learning about the wide world of food beyond mother’s milk, it is important that they get the food in its own flavour and texture rather than powdered, salted, sugared and fried versions of fruits, vegetables and grains.   There is no need to introduce added sugar to young children.  Children can eat whole fruits and vegetables, whole grains and legumes, prepared at home.

Providing junk food may satisfy the parent’s desire to see kids eat more but it will mess with their health and also their ability to appreciate the actual taste of food. Young children who are not exposed to junk food do not ask for junk food.   Older children with a firm foundation of real food early in life can understand that sweets and savories have their place and can moderate their intake without parental restriction.

In short, support food freedom by ensuring that all available food is acceptable food.  Keep junk food out of the house for the first few years of a child’s life so that they can get familiar with a variety of real food.  As parents, get in the habit of trusting your kids, without worrying about how much they are eating, or coaxing them to eat (more).  If all the food in the house is healthy then children are free to decide what to eat when and develop an awareness of how their body responds to vegetables, fruits, grains, dal, nuts, etc.

Processed foods rig the game by providing concentrated loads of fat, sugar and salt with very little fiber.   One who thinks that this is how food is supposed to taste and feel will be less patient with foods that require more chewing and whose flavors and textures are more diverse.

Further reading on nurturing good eating habits:
Introducing Foods
How Children Learn to Eat
My Breastfeeding Journey
Weaning

Is it true that you are still …

In When on 1 July 2012 at 3:29 pm

This article originally appeared in 2006.

Is it true that you are still …
May 2006 / Mumbai

A woman interrupted me last night as I was taking printouts of the petitions we were planning to send to the Prime Minster to stop the Sardar Sarovar project from going up to 121 m. Urging me aside, she told me, “As early as possible you should stop breastfeeding her.”

Nursing my daughter while attending a meeting.

Nursing my daughter while attending a meeting.

She was probably not the only one who noticed when my daughter nursed during the meeting, but she was the only one to state her views so directly.  Unprepared for such a confrontation, I simply said, “I am very busy, and I am not going to stop breastfeeding now.” Seconds later, more crisp responses filled my head … Read the rest of this entry »

When should I wean my daughter?

In When on 17 February 2012 at 5:22 pm

When should I wean my daughter?
mother of a 14 month old in Mumbai

Who is asking? You? Your baby? Your family? Random strangers on the bus? (It has happened to me.) Since you have asked me, I will go by the book and say, after at least 2 years of age, when you and baby are ready. The World Health Organization has taken care of defending the importance of breastfeeding for two years and beyond so let me talk about the further years.

Of all the years of nursing my daughter, I would say I am most grateful for the fourth.  It was in that year that my daughter fell ill three times, each time with high fever and loss of appetite.  By that age (three-and-a-half) she had grown bold in exploring the world; that may have exposed her to more bugs. Whenever she was sick, she nursed day and night – so not only did she get rest and nourishment, but I didn’t lose sleep either, because she was comfortable throughout the illness.

What if baby shows signs of pausing or stopping nursing?  Thanks to the WHO, before age 2 is generally regarded as too young to stop, and mothers are encouraged to try more skin contact and other measures to keep nursing . (See Kelly Mom for more tips.)   While two years is the recommended minimum, there is no recommended maximum.  Nursing continues to be healthy for years beyond the minimum age of two.

Young children will continue to go through phases when they nurse more as well as times when they nurse less.  Gradually the peaks of increased nursing grow less frequent and eventually do not return.

Around age two most children are eating a variety of solid foods and also increasing the range of their social interactions.   Whenever exposed to illness, and especially when sick, children nurse more.  Breastfeeding enhances immunity and also supports the mind and body while little children go through physical, emotional or intellectual growth spurts.  Just observe after a spree of nursing – you will find that something exciting follows.

You may not know when your child feels a queasy stomach or bad throat coming on, but his body will signal him to take less solid food and nurse more.  This eases the work of the digestive system, brings in fluids and channels resources to the immune system for the job at hand.   Many times a baby who is allowed to listen to her body and adjust her diet as needed will nip an illness in the bud, and will remain in tune with her body even beyond the nursing years.

At other times your little one will need less milk and your body will continue to make just the right amount for him, since the more he drinks the more you make. He himself will gradually take less and less and you don’t have to worry about when.  Remember that nursing supplies far more than food, it is also a source of comfort.  Having a safe haven to return to definitely encouraged my little one as she became more outgoing.

While there is no uniform age at which the nutritional, immunological, intellectual and emotional benefits of nursing disappear, every child weans, even without any suggestion or push.   As I read in Norma Jane Bumgarner, Mothering Your Nursing Toddler, the answer to the question of weaning, as far as health is concerned, is that you do not need to think about it.  The wide world beckons and they are little only once.

My nursing / weaning story is here.

How often does a 3-year-old nurse?

In When on 27 October 2011 at 3:48 am

How often does your 3-year-old nurse? My son is 2.5 right now and still nurses ALL THE TIME! At times it is hard – he asks at a most inopportune time and then screams if I say "not now." I don’t want him weaned, I just don’t want him nursing constantly.

This question came up in Mothering, a forum that has helped me consistently. I was so grateful to be nursing when my daughter was 3 because we went through a series of illnesses at that age, as noted in my weaning story (see Announcements below). Just the other day my neighbour in Mumbai confided to me, almost shyly, that she nursed her daughter till age three-and-a-half. Our kids are only 6 months apart, we were both nursing three-year olds in the same neighbourhood, and did not even know it at the time! While chatting with her I learned that her mother and grandmother had set the example for her unrestricted nursing. Hurray for families supporting breastfeeding!

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