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World Breastfeeding Week: Debate on when to wean lingers

Two years after TIME magazine put the issue of attachment parenting front and center in the US, some moms of toddlers are starting to ask, 'Am I like that mom on the cover?'

Bobby Yip/Reuters/FILE
Mothers breastfeed their children during a breastfeeding flash mob demonstration at a public place in Hong Kong June 14, 2014. The group urged the government to establish a breastfeeding policy to protect the rights of nursing mothers, the organizer said in a press release.

The first week of August is World Breastfeeding Week, kicking off Breastfeeding Awareness Month in the US.  

Like many American moms who choose to breastfeed, my goal was to nurse my daughter for one year, but I hadn’t considered what might come next.

Once her first birthday came and went, and she was still very enthusiastically nursing throughout the day and once at night, I felt really torn about what to do. On one hand, experts and every parenting book I’ve read said it was important to nurse for the first year, and then however long after that that both mom and child would like to continue. 

At first, I tried to wean her by distracting her and just holding her instead of nursing for a week or so, but she flailed and screamed non-stop. She clearly wasn’t going to be weaned without a major upset in our household harmony. 

Deciding when to wean is one front on the mommy wars that has intensified in the US since TIME magazine’s May 2012 cover featured a mom breastfeeding her three-year-old, to accompany a story on attachment parenting practices and perceptions. 

I remember being flabbergasted when I saw a toddler breastfeeding on that cover. My marriage was only about nine months old and I wasn't thinking about having a baby just yet. Before my husband and I got married we had talked about having at least one child, but we were thoroughly enjoying our carefree lives in downtown Boston. 

We had romantic dinners in the city almost every weekend and stayed late at our friends' dinner parties. Now that our toddler is factored in, the latest we stay out is 9:30 p.m., and that's really pushing the limit. The most romantic dinner we've had the opportunity to enjoy involved turning the lights off at about 5:30, lighting a couple of candles, and hurriedly eating while the baby napped. Life is so different now, so my perspective has changed dramatically.

Now that I'm nursing a toddler myself, the TIME cover photo doesn't seem as strange anymore. I can see why a mom wouldn't want to force her child to wean if he or she isn't ready, especially if the child is dealing with other developmental milestones at the time.

Is waiting until a child self-weans best or is it ridiculous to see a walking, talking child asking for milk directly from mom? In the US, this is still a tricky subject. The US is the last among 36 industrialized nations to support breastfeeding, according to a 2012 study by Save the Children. The study cites US federal law, which only guarantees new working mothers 12 weeks of maternity leave, but without any pay, Almost every other industrialized country provides paid maternity leave and of longer duration than the US. 

However in June, President Obama hosted a summit with business leaders to work on improving maternity leave policies, including allowing for flexible work schedules, expanded paid sick leave, and more affordable child care. Though these changes aren't likely to occur overnight, undoubtedly these policies will support families, especially those who choose to breastfeed.

I didn't think about my parenting style before my daughter was born – I just instinctively chose to breastfeed her on-demand, co-sleep, and use a baby carrier more often than a stroller. Overall, it's been a good path for us, though as with all parenting, there have been a few bumps along the way.

As for weaning, I can’t claim to have the answers. I don't think anyone does for me – or for other mothers. We’re taking it one day at a time at my house, though I feel increased social pressure when I put my nursing cover on at the park, tuck my toddler in, and I look up to see friends’ or strangers’ raised eyebrows. 

But for now, it feels right for my daughter and me. The moments we share as she nurses are lovely, and I can sense that they’re fleeting, too.

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