Toddler Nursing – A Taboo Subject?

This week (August 1 – 7) is World Breastfeeding Week. The World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action (WABA) was founded in 1991 to “protect, promote and support breastfeeding”. Their day of promotion and celebration has since become a week-long event.

Jax will turn 18 months this Friday. We are still nursing, a year and a half into this journey. If you’d asked me before I had him if I thought I’d still be breastfeeding at this point, what would I have said? “I hope so!” I’m certainly glad I have the benefit of a lowered risk of breast cancer (my mother died of it when I was little), not to mention the nutritional gains for Jax.

I’m not here to tell you how great breastfeeding is (and extended breastfeeding.) More governments and organizations are beginning to realize the importance of promoting breastfeeding. And, I’m not here to say that more moms could be successful at breastfeeding given the proper resources, aide and patience (I recommend this book – I loved it!) Like vaccinations and circumcision, breastfeeding discussions can get everyone all hot and bothered. Let’s just leave it at: it isn’t always for everyone, but it is wonderful if you can! This post is just about my experiences.

How much does he nurse? It depends… On a normal day, he nurses: when he wakes, before his nap, in the afternoon/before nap if he has a 2nd one, before bed and a couple times overnight. He has a healthy appetite for solid foods and drinks water with meals. If he is teething or in a growth spurt, it’s anyone’s guess how much he’ll nurse! We are nursing a lot this week. Yes, it’s a big commitment, but one I don’t hesitate to make.

The question I get asked most often is, “How long will you nurse him? I’m not really sure the answer, but most likely, as long as he wants/needs to. I don’t see myself nursing a 4 year old. I think it’s unlikely he’d go that long without self-weaning.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has stated that “There is no upper limit to the duration of breastfeeding and no evidence of psychological or developmental harm from breastfeeding into the third year of life or longer.”

Research done by Anthropologist Katherine Dettwyler, PhD states, “The natural age of weaning for human children is between 2.5 years and 7 years. (via Breastfeeding.org)

I definitely am aware that not everyone is comfortable around an older baby nursing, so I no longer do it in public if I can avoid it (though I always was discrete and covered up in the past.) He is good about waiting until home, and I can always take him out to the car if I need to. (There are exceptions – like our all-day outing in NYC. I can nurse in the baby carrier without anyone knowing.)

What are your thoughts on extended breastfeeding past the first year? The subject seems so taboo, but I’d love to hear others’ experiences.

22 thoughts on “Toddler Nursing – A Taboo Subject?

  1. Kassie

    Hannah nursed successfully until 13 months old, when I was forced to be away from her overnight & was encouraged by my MIL to “not offer it to her” upon my return because she was “fine” without it… she was my first child & I WAS ready to stop in my head, but the suffering I had to endure from such an abrupt stop was horrific. I told myself if I had to do it over again, I’d let HER tell me when it was time to stop… not anyone else.

    Then came Ian… he was a boob FIEND. He was 23 months old when he stopped… again, I think he would’ve kept going and going and going, but he went on a 2 week vacation to his grandparents’ house, and when he came back, I was all dried up. It was convenient, and I was MORE than ready to stop, but determined that I’d let him be the one that put an end to it. Granted, he didn’t tell me at 23 months old that he would just go to Nonna’s house and be done with the boobie, but… he didn’t even ask to nurse upon his return, so I took that as a sign that it was time…

    I think it’s great that you are still nursing Jax! There’s no more special bond in this life, I’m convinced.

    Reply
  2. Julie K.

    My sister is a physician and says there’s no proof of health benefits to nursing after 12 months. In fact, there’s an opposite effect. A child who nurses for extended periods of time tend to be overweight adults.

    And talk about taboo…it’s politically incorrect to say that it’s really disgusting to see some woman with her tit out with a kid who can walk and talk sucking on it. But it’s true. It’s gross and most people think so. It’s nice to hear that you don’t breast feed in public. It really is disturbing to witness that.

    Reply
    1. Lyndall

      Hm, well, I actually think its more ‘disturbing’ and ‘gross’ to go around posting rude comments on people’s blogs.

      Reply
      1. Julie K.

        Why is that rude? She was asking an opinion and I gave it.

        Just because it differs from others doesn’t mean it’s rude, silly girl.

        Reply
        1. Cat

          You could have expressed your valid opinion in a different way. I’m not passionate one way or another, but I found your comment to be needlessly harsh and rude as well.

          I’m not convinced I find it “disturbing” to see a toddler nursing…I think I would find it surprising….but that has more to do with social squeamishness than immutable fact. I’ve been all over the world, and no where have I been that is as uptight and frightened of the human body than the United States, lol!

          (Lesson in manners: it is more polite to say, “I THINK…x y z” rather than “x y z IS…”
          Ex: “It really is disturbing”

          Also, who is most people? The majority of the world would not find it disturbing. Too bad the majority of the world isn’t patronizing the local shopping mall when you want to breastfeed.)

          Reply
  3. Brian

    Alex nursed William for about 8 months- but between work and his adapting to the bottle it stopped shortly after that. Her goal was a year, but the doc told us that at least 6 months was what was needed to get all of the benefits, so she was ok with stopping.

    As for how long to go… Well, I have to say that society as a whole seems to be trending towards it being awkward after the kid reaches a certain age. I am not s saying it is right that society feels that way, but mom’s who choose to breast feed past the kid walking do need to expect some looks or even some comments. Again, not saying its right, but that how it seems to be.

    I guess the big question is how do you change the societal norm so people are ok with it?

    Reply
  4. Jack

    It is traditionally unpopular for men to respond to this type of discussion but …

    If we were able to do so, we probably would have breast fed for the first year for sure. Unfortunately there were complications for Britt and she had problems with flow on one side and the other became so overworked it was painful to feed. Eventually we were forced to move to formula.

    However, while there isn’t any harm in continuing past year one, some studies have shown that most of the key benefits of breast feeding have started to level out. Important initial enzymes and antibodies are passed early on during the first year of breastfeeding. It becomes increasingly important after the first year that a child start incorporating other foods and whole milk into their diet. Whole milk contains fat that aids in growth.

    All of this aside .. from what I’ve see it is largely a personal choice per parent. I don’t have a problem with older children nursing, but I honestly feel its more of a decision the parent makes over the child choosing. An example already given explains it perfectly … 23 months and the child is stull nursing … goes away for two weeks and comes back and doesn’t even ask for it. I believe that the child may be ready for it before the mother is and that you’ll find through the choice of weening that a child is only as dependant on it after the first year as the mother is on doing it.

    Again, this is not a knock on any of the mom’s here. I think the issue is largely one of psychological need of a parent over biological need of a child. The key factor is the belief from psychologists that there is little harm to the child at this age. If its not hurting the child, I see no reason that a mother should stop. But I do personally see value in making the choice to ween early so that you can start development on regular foods. The last thing you want is a picky eater!

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  5. Claudine

    I think the core reason some people are disgusted by breastfeeding is because they sexualize the act, since it involves a “tit”. (the choice word of prepubescent boys). I think this preversion of the most natural act in the animal kingdom is what really should be examined and brought to light. Do people think the mother or child are getting off on it? Head out of the gutter, please.

    Reply
    1. Julie K.

      Head out of the gutter? You’re the one who went down that street, sister. I, for one, do not think of it that way at all. It’s just gross to see a walking, talking child hanging off a tit (or would you feel more comfortable if I used the term mammary gland?). It’s beyond their development.

      Reply
      1. Claudine

        I understand your defensiveness. And my statement isn’t narrowly aimed as a personal attack on you, but an opinion about our culture. I am really interested in where the disgust stems from in our society. Something is going on at a deep level, below the surface, that should be reflected on. If you prefer not to reflect on it, then, continue to stew in your own venom. No sweat off my back.

        Reply
  6. Lori

    I have to disagree, Jack. I breastfeed now only because my son still wants to breastfeed. I would happily let him wean if he was ready. He is not. Therefore I still allow him to nurse on demand, mostly in the mornings after waking and in the evening before bed. Only occasionally does he come to me during the day wanting to breastfeed. He eats a healthy, varied diet of “real” foods, so we’re not missing out in the developmental department either. (Cows milk is not a “necessary” element in any diet, btw, but that’s a whole other bag of worms.) In fact, I don’t think anyone here is talking about breastfeeding a toddler in leiu of offering solids. Extended breastfeeding is just the natural order of things, and I and obviously many others are willing to go with the flow… no pun intended. 😉

    Reply
    1. Jack

      I respect that completely. I am only suggesting that a child over 1 has no real biological need to breast feed. Some time around the 6 month mark it becomes to increasingly unnecessary nutritionally. Not that a child won’t be getting proper nutrition, just that all the added benefits of the process start to go away.

      I think Kassie’s example about Ian above is a prime example of my point. Ian might have been ready for a while, but it wasn’t until he was given a situation to be separated from the breast was it easy to see he had no more need for it. He was on it for 23 months because (as suggested by Kassie) she had no intention of trying to stop.

      There was no harm in going 23 months though.

      It all comes back to harm .. is it psychologically damaging to a child to be on a breast longer then a year? Two years? I would suggest that it is not. And while the convention in our society would tell us that a child of 4 should not be on the breast, there isn’t necessairly harm in it.

      Personally, I think a child should be weened off of a breast sometime after year 1. I also think that a mother shouldnot have to feel embarassed about feeding her child in public, but that stigma is going to be around for a while.

      Reply
      1. Stephanie Post author

        I’d love to read whatever you’ve seen about it not being beneficial past 6 months… Do you have any links?

        What I’ve read is:
        In the second year (12-23 months), 448 mL of breastmilk provides:
        29% of energy requirements
        43% of protein requirements
        36% of calcium requirements
        75% of vitamin A requirements
        76% of folate requirements
        94% of vitamin B12 requirements
        60% of vitamin C requirements
        — Dewey 2001

        More here: http://www.kellymom.net/bf/bfextended/

        Thanks for the adult discussion, folks!

        Reply
  7. April

    I wanted to throw out a response from the “I’m not a mommy” camp. Honestly, I applaud women who breastfeed until they are comfortable and the baby is ready to wean. That being said, I would draw the line of my comfortability at around 6 years of age. I had a friend who indeed breastfed until her son was in Kinder and it was a little weird to me at that age. Still, kudos to any mum who listens to her body and her babe’s needs, whether those needs be nutritional or emotional.

    Reply
  8. Jack

    Well, the nice thing about this topic of conversation is that I’m educating myself better about breastfeeding in general (knowledge is always a good thing 🙂

    Reference this article from HealthyChildren.org: (I’ll reply to myself)
    Ages & Stages
    Weaning Your Baby

    The decision to stop breastfeeding is a personal choice, and many mothers are surprised that their own goals and desires in this area differ markedly from those of other mothers and even from those of their children.

    You may so enjoy the closeness that comes with breastfeeding that you want to continue nursing through toddlerhood. Your child may want to continue nursing long past his first year, particularly before bedtime and when he’s in need of comfort. On the other hand, you may feel the need to move on to new activities, or your child’s active temperament may cause him to be too impatient to continue to nurse.

    Whenever and for whatever reason you and your child decide that the time has come (or, as is sometimes the case, suddenly realize that feedings have tapered off almost of their own accord), look at this change as another positive step in your life together and a window into the fascinating new ways your child is growing.

    Is This The Right Time? When To Wean

    Planning ahead when to stop breastfeeding—or trying to decide what the best age for weaning might be—can be a particularly difficult exercise for parents in this country. Few, if any, cultural conventions tell us precisely when it’s time to completely wean from the breast, yet concerned relatives and friends often seem to have strong opinions about what’s best for the child and mother.

    The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends continued breastfeeding beyond the first birthday as long as mutually desired by mother and child. However, mothers in the United States have tended to wean much earlier over the past century than in most other countries, paralleling the more widespread use of infant formula. Today, though, later weaning is steadily gaining wider acceptance in the general population. In addition, weaning is more often initiated by the mother in this country, whereas in most other cultures children begin the process when they feel ready. Worldwide, the average age for weaning is between two and four, and in some societies breastfeeding continues up to age six or seven.

    Scientific research on the benefits of long-term breastfeeding for the health and well-being of child and mother is growing. Researchers have found that the composition of the mother’s breastmilk continues to change during her baby’s second year of life, and it continues to provide important nutritional benefits and to bolster the toddler’s immune system. Studies have also demonstrated evidence of a “dose effect” for breastfeeding—meaning that the longer breastfeeding continues and the more breastmilk a child consumes, the better the health for child and mother. Further research has shown that the longer children are breastfed in their first year of life, the better they perform in tests of cognitive skills and academic achievement. This especially holds true for children who are breastfed for more than eight months. For these and many other reasons, the World Health Organization recommends exclusive breastfeeding for six months and urges mothers to continue breastfeeding at least until age two.

    The simplest, most “natural” time to wean is when your child initiates the process. Weaning begins naturally at six months, when iron-fortified solid foods are introduced. Some children begin to turn gradually away from breastfeeding and toward other forms of nutrition and comfort at around one year of age, when they have begun to enjoy a wide variety of solid foods and have learned to drink from a cup. Others wean themselves during the toddler years as they become more physically active and less willing to sit still to nurse. Gradually tapering off the number of nursing sessions at this time can proceed quite smoothly, as your child becomes so busy with new experiences that she “forgets” that it’s time to nurse.

    You may, however, decide to initiate weaning at an earlier time for reasons of your own. These may include the need to be away from home for longer periods, a new pregnancy, job constraints, or even an increasing lack of desire to breastfeed. (It is important to remember, though, that you can continue to breastfeed even if you have become pregnant or return to work, perhaps reducing the frequency of breastfeeding and incorporating some use of infant formula).

    Starting the weaning process yourself will not be as easy as following your child’s lead, but with care and sensitivity it can certainly be accomplished. Meanwhile, it’s important to focus on your child’s needs and your own—to tune out the inevitable advice and judgment of others outside the mother–child relationship, resist comparing your situation to that of any other family, and maybe even rethink any advance deadlines you set for yourself when you were pregnant or your child was a newborn.

    Keep in mind that you have provided the best start for your baby by breastfeeding, no matter how early or late you decide to stop. Some breastfeeding is better than none. No one but you and your child can decide what is best for the two of you.

    Last Updated5/12/2011SourceNew Mother’s Guide to Breastfeeding (Copyright © 2002 American Academy of Pediatrics)

    Reply
    1. Stephanie Post author

      Great info! Goes along with what I’ve been reading.

      I’m really glad it continues to benefit him as I don’t want to force him to wean. He shows no interest in stopping yet.

      Reply
  9. Meri

    I believe my mothering instinct just grew with my child. At 4 weeks old, I looked at my child–my eyes blurry with fatigue, my shirt stained with several leaking incidences, my house a complete disaster–and thought there was NO WAY I could ever make it to one year. As her first birthday passed, then her second, and her third–we continued to nurse on demand. She stopped nursing at night when I took a night class just before her third birthday. I became pregnant with baby number two when she was three, but nursed until 12 weeks, when it was just too painful to nurse. It broke my heart to wean her, so I explained that there was a baby brother or sister growing in my tummy, who needed the milk more. She was totally okay with it, and never asked to nurse again. I guess she was just ready.

    My second child will be 4 in October. She doesn’t nurse often these days. Sometimes in the morning she asks, and she assures me there is still milk. However, this past Monday, she split her lip open, resulting in a visit to the emergency room. She did NOT ask to nurse at any time during or after this stressful experience.

    I think she’s pretty much done. It’s a little sad to see this part of my life pass. I have been pregnant and/or nursing for nearly 9 years at this point. My body has not been my own for a long while. I have to say that weaning has been a completely natural process with my second, and I don’t regret one moment of it.

    I have always been willing to nurse whenever, wherever my children have asked. I have not denied nursing in public, but I’ve always tried to be respectful–without covering myself with a blanket, because I really believe that showing other women that nursing a baby or toddler is just our natural instinct.

    Reply
  10. Sheila Lynard

    It amazes me how nursing can be seen as so taboo here in the US. I think it’s personal choice between other and nursling as to how long the nursing is needed. I nursed my first baby for 2 months and due to him requiring a major hospitalization our nursing had to end. I had hoped to nurse him for a year but it was ok. My second baby nursed for 10 months- I again hoped for 12. He was crawling at 4 months and was always on the go, so he started weaning around 6 months, by 10 months, I was tired of the nursing acrobatics. 🙂 In hindsight with all of his food allergies, I wish I had nursed him longer. Steven is 7 1/2 months and a total mommas boy. I do not see him giving up nursing anytime soon. I never thought I’d nurse past 12 months- but I have decided why not? Only time will tell though as I am ok with being done whenever he is -as long as I am still up for it! I rarely nurse in public, just because I like to be comfy and my car with a pillow is better for me than on the go somewhere, but if need be I will feed him where ever needed. I can be very descreet nursing him in his Piggy Sack carrier. I have no problem if someone wants to nurse their child into toddlerhood.. or beyond that is their business not mine. If I don’t want to see I can look the other way. 🙂 I see worse things than a mother nursing on a daily basis!! I wish people wer not so uptight about feeding babies. It seems that people think feeding babies cow milk from bottles is natural..but we all know women were made to nurse babies.
    🙂

    Reply
  11. Inga

    I nursed my first son until he was two, at which point I had to stop abruptly as I began taking medication unexpectedly. My second son is now 23 months old, and if possible, an even more avid nurser than the first! I treasure the connect we experience via breastfeeding and am happy that I am able to provide the comfort that he needs. At this point, comfort and regulation are the primary reasons for his desire to nurse and I see no reason to put an end to that. However, there are certainly times when I would prefer him to be able to regulate himself a little bit better! My dilemna is I don’t wish to stop completely (until he is ready, that is) as he is my last child, however I’d love to scale it back a bit, so I don’t feel like he’s always hanging off me! As a bit of extra information, he has been somewhat delayed developmentally and with his speech, so there has been a lot of frustration for him to contend with – any way that I can comfort him is a good thing.

    Reply

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