“Breastfeeding a five-year-old. That’s too old.”

There’s been a whole hoo-haa in the media last week about breastfeeding older children. Sharon Spink, a mother of four, appeared in The Sun and on This Morning to talk about her experience of breastfeeding her five-year-old (the Daily Mail’s coverage is surprisingly positive so that’s what I’ve linked to).

Opinion is divided on whether this kind of publicity actually raises awareness in support of natural term breastfeeding or whether it holds up a parenting choice, or even an individual person, as a spectre. I’m not really sure what I think about that but I’m not particularly interested in discussing that at the moment.

When Sharon mentioned in an online group I co-moderate that she would be appearing, I braced myself for the inevitable comments that her story would be met with. And they came.

While many who’ve responded with revulsion clearly have no interest in having a conversation about natural term breastfeeding or attempting to understand another’s perspective, I was struck that many others are asking a real question when they say five years old is too old.

They’re asking: “Why?”

Well, why not?

We talk about “continuing to breastfeed” as if it’s an active choice a mother is making every day, at every feed, when actually, unless your child self-weans or your baby has a nursing strike, stopping is the choice that’s interventionist. Why would you choose to stop something that’s still working for you and your child?

Without our help, children do eventually self-wean. Breastfeeding is well-designed. Children eventually lose their need, urge and even ability to do it. It begins with a small baby starting to become more interested in the world and ends with a child who probably doesn’t remember the last time they nursed, so gradual and gentle was the transition. It’s a process that doesn’t require our help in order to happen.

Though most of us do help in some way – even many of us who want our children to breastfeed until they naturally move on. As our children grow older, our relationship naturally changes. We may start encouraging them to wait while we finish something, or try counting with them during a feed, or begin to call on other tools for nighttime parenting. Breastfeeding might be something that happens in certain places or at certain times or in certain circumstances.

Not everyone chooses to implement limits as time goes by but it seems natural that we offer the breast less as our children grow older. Of course, they ask less too.

So, if weaning is going to happen, what’s the great drive to hurry it along if mother and child are both enjoying breastfeeding and its benefits? Hang on, are there benefits? Well yes, human milk continues to meet specific and changing needs over time, and so does the act of breastfeeding. It would seem that we are wired for our drive to breastfeed to go hand in hand with the maturation of our immune system and full range of development. From this perspective it would make sense that breastfeeding should last for years, not months.

It might be interesting to consider at this point a concluding paragraph from Katherine A Dettwyler’s A Time to Wean:

“The human primate data suggest that human children are designed to receive all of the benefits of breast milk and breastfeeding for an absolute minimum of two and a half years, and an apparent upper limit of around 7 years. Natural selection has favored those infants with a strong, genetically coded blueprint that programs them to expect nursing to continue for a number of years after birth and results in the urge to suckle remaining strong for this entire period. Many societies today are able to meet a child’s nutritional needs with modified adult foods after the age of three or four years. Western, industrialized societies can compensate for some (but not all) of the immunological benefits of breastfeeding with antibiotics, vaccines and improved sanitation. But the physical, cognitive, and emotional needs of the young child persist. Health care professionals, parents, and the general public should be made aware that somewhere between three and seven years may be a reasonable and appropriate age of weaning for humans, however uncommon it may be in the United States to nurse an infant through toddlerhood and beyond.” [emphasis mine]

Obviously, this isn’t intended to preach at those who want or choose to wean early, or to put salt in for anyone who didn’t manage to breastfeed as long as they would have liked to. Things happen as they do for any number of reasons.

I’ve been very fortunate to receive support and information to allow me to establish and continue breastfeeding my older daughter who will soon be three (through the hell of tongue-tie and low supply, then through the less-discussed challenges of pregnancy and now alongside her baby sister). I also happen to live in the place, time and circumstances, and among people, that make my decision – my hope – to let breastfeeding take its natural course a relatively comfortable one.

No one’s called my child too old (to our faces, anyway) but there has sometimes been surprise if the fact that she’s still breastfeeding comes up, which it doesn’t often. I don’t pick up animosity in this. I imagine there’s curiosity behind their surprise. Perhaps they’re just wondering why.

More to read, if you fancy:

“A Time to Wean”, Katherine A. Dettwyler, PhD Department of Anthropology Texas A & M University College Station Texas, from Breastfeeding Abstracts, August 1994, Volume 14, Number 1, pp. 3-4.
“Why Mothers Nurse Their Children into Toddlerhood”, Norma Jane Bumgarner, excerpt from Mothering Your Nursing Toddler
Breastfeeding Past Infancy: Links, Kellymom.
The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding, La Leche League, Pinter & Martin.
You, Me and the Breast, a children’s book about breastfeeding following a child’s breastfeeding journey from to birth to childhood. My daughter loves it!

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  • My daughter self-weaned at 2 years 2 months, and my son is still going strong at 2 years 4 months. I didn’t set out with the intention of nursing them to toddlerhood – in fact when my daughter was born I was one of those people who thought it was weird to nurse a child who had teeth or could talk. But it happened gradually; I let her nurse yesterday, so why would I refuse her today? And soon she was 2!

    I think critics of natural-term nursing tenacious forget this, that it’s a gradual process. No-one starts out nursing a toddler or a preschooler!

  • It really annoys me when people say that the reason women breastfeed any longer than 6 months is ‘for themselves’! It’s anything but for themselves, it’s not like you can force a child to feed against their will! I was prepared to go on feeding both of mine for longer, especially J but I found I had to put my own needs before his when it came to stopping. Luckily he hasn’t really been that bothered though. I think it’s such a shame that breastfeeding only ever hits the media in a negative light, stories like this make even more people think that breastfeeding is ‘weird’ x
    Jess @ Along Came Cherry recently posted..Our Weekend

  • We are only at 3 months breastfeeding at the moment and we don’t have any plans at all with it we are sort of just doing it. I guess at some point she will need the comfort less, and will naturally stop but I hope that when we do it is a happy time and mostly her decision and not one I will regret years from now.
    momma mojo recently posted..Top Tips from Tots! (Working with brands)

  • As someone who has breastfed until her youngest 2 children were 4 years old, and my oldest son formula fed after a few weeks, I personally think feeding beyond “societies norms” is a really hard choice to make. I think people need to be more accepting and let people decide what’s best.
    Pinkoddy recently posted..Warner Bros Event #MotivationalMonday

  • As long as mum and child are happy then there is no reason to stop. I was sad that I had to stop feeding my eldest too soon as tube feeding was the only way forward for him due to medical needs. My eldest girls stopped themselves around 2 1/2 to 3 years, then Isabelle stopped at just after 2 years, where I admit I would have liked her to be my baby for a bit longer. I can’t imagine b/ feeding a five year old because I don’t have that experience but if the child continues to want to feed then I would imagine that it feels more natural than forcing a child to stop. Letting my kids stop naturally made it a calm, no tears (except mine!) experience x
    Claire recently posted..Me and You April

  • There just seems to be endless arguments and views on various aspects of breastfeeding, and I can’t believe it is something we have to even think about discussing in this day in age when research and facts are so readily available. I can’t imagine women in the 15th century being scrutinised or the discussion of breastfeeding being a everyday occurrence!

    Feeding to whatever is best for Mum and baby should never be the opinion of anyone else, publicly or not!
    abigail recently posted..seventeen / fifty-two

  • I find this really fascinating. I stopped feeding my son at 13 months, my daughter at 6 months. My daughter because she stopped being interested and my son because I couldn’t stand it any more. I really regret that decision in a lot of ways. I wish I had left it to be his choice. Now, six months later, he still tries to get under my top – I don’t think he really knows what he’s doing but I think he is searching for that comfort that he knew was there somewhere. I just couldn’t cope with it any more, so it was my choice not his (my mind says my failure, not his!). Thanks for writing this and sorry for the essay comment 🙂
    Emma Cantrell recently posted..Comment on The Dress by Fiona

  • fantastic post as ever Adele, occasionally I think ‘oh yer! we’re still breastfeeding!’ but it’s so funny that some people think that people who practise ‘extended breastfeeding’ are thinking about it as a choice day after day, it’s just something I rarely even think about I have no intention of stopping until W is ready but that’s because it’s not the slightest inconvenience, it’s our morning cuddle and an excuse to rest in bed a little while longer. I remember when W was just over 6m and still bf a nanny friend of mine was saying how great it was I wasn’t stopping at 6 months but how it was so wrong that people would breastfeed a two year old (the child she looked after was two) I think about this from time to time as my friend is quite a caring rational person but I guess people have these ideas due to how the media portrays it.
    p.s I need to get W that book!
    Fritha recently posted..Lifecake

  • Great post, I really think that society needs to be a lot more accepting of bf as a norm. I never breastfed past 18 months as mine all self-weaned by then, but if they’d wanted to carry on, I would have until they were ready to stop
    Polly recently posted..Ideal Home Show {+Giveaway}

  • It’s strange that breastfeeding gets people airing such strong views when it is such a personal thing and experiences of it can vary so much – even between the same mother and different children. I think you’re right, a lot of people are just wondering why. Great post.

  • That is a great article. Thanks for that. I was breastfeeding until my daughter was 3 1/2 years old. I have never imagined myself to continue that long, it just happend. Not because I wanted to. I basically followed my feelings and it just felt right. I never ever had any bad comments from other people, rather the opposite was the case. I am very grateful for that.

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