This section is from the "The Young Mother. Management of Children in Regard to Health" book, by William A. Alcott. Also available from Amazon: The Young Mother
This period will, of course, be longer or shorter according as the teeth begin to appear earlier or later, and according to the time when it is thought proper to wean.
On few points, perhaps, has there existed a greater diversity of opinion than in regard to the age most proper for weaning. The limits of this work do not permit a thorough discussion of the question; and I shall therefore be very brief in my remarks on the subject.
Dr. Cullen, whose opinion on topics of this kind is certainly entitled to much respect, thought that less than seven, or more than eleven months of nursing was injurious. Yet in some countries, and even in some parts of our own, the period is extended by the mother, from choice, to two years. And although the milk is not so good after the thirteenth or fourteenth month, I have never either known or heard that any evil consequences followed from the practice.
Dr. Loudon, a recent writer, observes, that the period of nursing has a great influence over the numbers of mankind in various countries, as is evinced by numerous facts. He adduces proofs of this, position. Thus, he says, in China, where the population is excessive, and the inhuman practice of infanticide is common, they wean a child as soon as it can put its hand to its mouth. On the other hand, the Indians of North America do not wean their children until they are old and strong enough to run about: generally they are suckled for a period of more than two years.
He then enters into a physiological inquiry why it is that British mothers do not usually suckle their children longer than ten months. He seems—though he does not give us his precise opinion—to think that, in all ordinary cases, the period of nursing ought to be protracted to two or three years, and that perhaps it would be better still to extend it to four or five. His remarks are so excellent, and withal so curious, and their tendency so humane, that we venture to insert one or two of his paragraphs entire.
Certain it is, that the milk does not diminish particularly at that time, (ten months,) so far as regards quantity; and from the health of children reared without spoon-meat beyond this time, it as certainly undergoes no change in its quality. Children are sometimes so old before weaning, as to be able to ask for the breast; and it has not been remarked that the health of mothers, thus suckling, was in any way worse than that of their neighbors. Altogether, then, it may be asserted, that a mother is likely to enjoy better health, and to be less liable to sickness and death during lactation, than during pregnancy.
Many women believe, or affect to believe, that the weakness they labor under arises from some latent moral or physical cause; but this weakness is not attributed to lactation in the earlier months of suckling, because the mother then considers herself fulfilling a necessary duty, which her constitution, for so long, is well able to bear. So soon, however, as the period of lactation has passed over, as it is established by custom or fashion, she imagines she is exceeding the intentions of nature, and she forthwith concludes that the continuance of suckling is the cause of her uncomfortable sensations. This whim being entertained, the child is weaned, and too often becomes the victim of a most reprehensible delusion.
Since nature has furnished the mother with milk for a longer period than custom demands, it is evident that some good purpose for the mother and child was intended in this arrangement. Had it been otherwise, the secretion of milk would stop at a definite time, in like manner as the period of gestation is definite. That a child, in comparison with the young of the lower animals, is so long unable to provide for itself, strongly tends to corroborate the proofs already advanced—that nature originally had in view a more protracted period for lactation than is now allowed.
"Some writers, following the laws of nature, as they interpreted them, fixed the period of weaning at fifteen months, when the infant has got its eight incisors and four canine teeth. There are well-authenticated instances of mothers having suckled their children for three, four, five, and even seven consecutive years; we ourselves have known cases of lactation being prolonged far three and for four years, with the happiest results."
It appears to me better, therefore, that the child should be nursed, in all ordinary cases, from twelve to fifteen months; and when there are no special objections, about two years. As the change, whenever it is made, and however gradual it may be, is an important one, in its effects on the stomach and bowels, it is better to wean a little earlier or a little later, than to do so just at the close of summer or beginning of autumn, at which season bowel complaints are most common, most severe, and most dangerous. It is sufficiently unfortunate that teething should commence just at this period; but when we add another cause of irregular action, which we can control, to one which we cannot, we act very unwisely.
I have already observed that we may begin to feed children when the teeth begin to appear. By this is not meant that we should do so while the system is under the irritation to which teething usually, or at least often, subjects it. But when this is over, and a few teeth have appeared, it is usually a proper time to commence our operations.
The first food given should be precisely of the kind which has been recommended for those children who are fed by the hand. The rules and restrictions by which we are to be guided, are the same, except in one point, which is, that in the case we are now considering, the child should be fed between nursing.
Let not parents be anxious about their healthy children under two years, who have a supply of good milk, either from the mother or from the cow. For those that are feeble, a physician may and ought to prescribe—not medicine, but appropriate food, drink, &c.
When the grinding teeth have cut through, if we have any doubts in regard to the nutritive qualities of the food we are giving, we may improve it by adding, instead of the one third of pure water, a similar quantity of gum arabic water, barley water, or rice water. Some use a little weak animal broth; but this is unnecessary, and I think, on the whole, injurious, except for purposes strictly medicinal.
This course is so simple, and so far removed from that which is generally adopted, that few mothers will probably be willing to pursue it with perseverance, especially when the teeth appear very late. Those who are, however, will be richly rewarded, in the end, in the advantages; which will accrue to the child's health, and the vigor it will ensure to his constitution.