Breastfeeding beyond one is not “just” for mum

The toddler walked up to his mother, climbed into her lap and asked for milk. She lifted her shirt, latched him on and continued to chat with us. “How old is he?” I asked. Two. That seemed too old to me a few years ago.

I thought breastfeeding beyond one year was weird and pointless. It was a thing some mothers did but why? I couldn’t tell. To be honest, I wasn’t too keen on the way breastfeeding seemed to attach children to their mothers to begin with. It seemed so limiting for women. They couldn’t go anywhere. Why would you prolong this?

Then I got pregnant. As my baby grew I realised that attachment was in our biology. We were meant to be close from the beginning. Of course I would breastfeed her. I went to an NCT antenatal course and came away with a flyer on the benefits of breastfeeding. To two years. You mean, a recognised body had cause to call “extended” breastfeeding normal?

Then I had the baby and though breastfeeding was difficult, it felt right. Breastfeeding for a year made emotional and logical sense. Then breastfeeding got really, really, really complicated and I desperately wanted to do it. At least for three months. At least for six months. At least until next month. Oh if we could only get to a year.

Breast milk – still good stuff after the first year

By this time I’d also started reading about breast milk and breastfeeding. I found out that it offers scientifically proven benefits which continue beyond the first year: cancer-killing protein, repairing stem cells, lots of help for an immune system which does not mature until much later than the age of one. Illness, fussy eating or days of distraction? Breastfeeding still packs a calorific punch for that toddler.

As (or possibly more) importantly, I began to meet mothers who were breastfeeding their two, three and four-year-olds. I began to see them breastfeeding their “older” children. I began to read about natural self-weaning. A mental transition took place. It made me the kind of person who doesn’t understand why people make a big deal out of a magazine cover with a three-year-old being breastfed.

I began to hope we would be able to breastfeed beyond a year, that she would wean because she was ready and not because of my milk supply or because I allowed other people to make me feel uncomfortable.

To wean or not to wean

Then we approached a year and I realised that it wasn’t a case of deciding to continue breastfeeding. All I was doing was just letting things happen. In fact I would have to make a conscious effort and instigate a plan of action to stop breastfeeding her.

I couldn’t think of why I would. Actually, I’m sitting here trying to think of a single reason why I would stop breastfeeding her now which doesn’t seem forced and arbitrary. Of course, things may happen that lead me to choose to wean but right now I don’t have any reason to and if it is to be mother-led, I hope we can do it slowly and gently.

Obviously, everyone is different and you may have reasons to wean. Perhaps you just don’t like breastfeeding anymore or you have to take some kind of breastfeeding-unfriendly medication. Maybe your baby is having a nursing strike which looks like self-weaning but isn’t. If you want to continue, get some support. It’s not just for younger babies. For that matter, if you want to stop, get some support.

I don’t know. I don’t know you or your situation. I’m just sharing the information I’ve found and what I feel about my own experience.

Unconvinced by the arguments

Where I am in my experience means that the reasons for stopping are just irrelevant to us. Also, despite people saying that full term breastfeeding mums are self-indulging, I couldn’t think of a reason I’d stop that would be for her benefit. These are the ones I’ve been hearing.

I want my body and my boobs back. Sometimes I feel touched out, especially if Talitha is teething and also wants to be held all the time. Sometimes I want my space when she’s going through a developmental spurt and wants to be latched on all night. Most of the time, though, I like our closeness. I enjoy how breastfeeding reconnects us when we’ve been apart. I like that it makes me sit down quietly with my baby at nap times. At any rate, even if I stopped breastfeeding her, her needs wouldn’t disappear. She’d still have her clingy times during teething, illness or whatever else. At least breastfeeding gives me an easy way to meet her needs when she’s like that. Ditto the She needs to grow up and become independent argument. That doesn’t happen overnight.

We don’t do that in the UK. One, that’s not an argument in itself. Especially not for me. I’m not from ’round here. Two, lots of women do, we just don’t see them enough. Three, the World Health Organisation recommends breastfeeding to two years and beyond so, really, shouldn’t that be a standard UK guideline too? Yes we may have better solid foods available to us than some other countries do but as far as I know rice doesn’t contain lymphocytes. It seems bizarre that a “first world” country carries a culture in which offering children a uniquely potent brain and body building food as long as possible is frowned upon.

I want to be able to leave her. Actually, I can and do leave her. If I leave her for a few hours we tend to both be fine. Longer than that and she’s fine but I need to express. She needs me at night, though, and I’ve decided not to leave her overnight again until she’s night weaned. I also hate expressing in the middle of the night. I’m too lazy. So yes, it does tie us together to some degree but you know what? That’s fine by me. This time will pass. She’s only little once and if I think about it, though she needs everything, she really doesn’t need much.

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  • The thing I love most about this post is the fact it’s not judgmental and it’s accepting that every mother’s choice and situation is different. I breastfed my daughter and stopped at around 13 months. It was a really gradual process and didn’t cause me any discomfort – in fact it was so gradual that it sort of happened without either of us really noticing. I had no “need” at the time to stop. And if I’d have wanted to continue I may have been able to encourage her to do it, but for us it felt right to let it phase out on its own course. The thing is, as you point out, every mum has different experiences and needs and situations. I have friends who’ve breastfed until their kids are 3 and a half and others who stopped after a few weeks. It’s never an issue for any of us because we all accept it’s a personal decision that, really, no one outside of that mother / child / family relationship has the right to judge. Great post. x
    Molly recently posted..An open letter to my daughter, on her birthday

    • Molly, the fact that the process was gradual, didn’t cause problems for either of you and that F was baby led weaned in terms of solids – I think that, though unusual for her age, she naturally self-weaned. It sounds like it really was the right time for you both and that you had a satisfying breastfeeding experience. Breastfeeding is a relationship. Some bits of it are universal but a lot’s going to be different for different people.

  • The ‘you can’t leave them’ comment always makes me nuts – I went back to work when mine were about 3 months and started doing overnight away trips when they were 6 months – you take a pump and you can do what you could if you weren’t breastfeeding PLUS you know that they are less likely to get poorly whlist you are away

    I wish people would consider their own issues and why they feel uncomfortable enough to brand extended nursing as wrong rather than trying to suggest the act itself is wrong

    As I discovered, you don’t wake up nursing a toddler, they start small and gradually grow and as they do your nursing relationship develops and grows too
    Muddling Along recently posted..Unexplained infertility

    • I think that’s exactly what’s happening to us. When I had a newborn, one-year-olds seemed so big. Now I have my one-year-old and our breastfeeding relationship is growing with her.

  • Lovely post, breastfeeding is just so natural and so easy when they’re bigger I can’t see a reason to stop and in fact it would make my life more difficult. I hope that both my boys will self wean when they are ready.

  • I did have the goal to feed Amy at least until 3 months, everything else I regarded as a bonus. I don’t really know why 3 months. I just had that time frame in my head. Now we are just taking every day as it comes and although I sometimes find breastfeeding hard work (Amy wants up to 10 feeds some nights and I know it’s just for comfort)I am allowing Amy to have the say regarding how long we will feed for.
    Carolin recently posted..Amy is rocking her Bobux i-walk shoes

  • I’m 37 weeks pregnant, hoping to breast feed till baby boys is at least 6months, but we’ll take it day by day and see what suits us

  • Just the post I need to read as I prepare myself for a forced weekend away with non-breastfeeding friendly women when my nursling will be 13.months old. Lots of great points and just the right tone. thanks!

  • I was the same before I had my baby, assuming it was odd to want to feed her beyond a year. But now (7 1/2 months) I can’t imagine stopping. I hope to continue until she weans herself off. It’s funny how our opinion can change when you are a part of it. I love being so closely bonded to my baby and can’t imagine not wanting that. lovely post and great that so many people have different experiences. It’s up to each mummy how they want to feed their baby and shouldn’t be jusdged as normal or not normal!

  • Lovely post its amazing isnt it how having a child and experiencing something can change the way you feel. My goals will be the same this time around as with my little girl. To take each day as it comes, relax, enjoy and allow her to feed as long as she wants to 🙂

  • I love this post! I’ve had so many shocked responses when people find out i’m still nursing our 20 month little girl that its sometimes knocked my confidence. Should she be weaned off me by now? Is this weird that i still feed her? it never takes long for my common sense to kick in and remind me that i am doing the very best thing by her but its always so good to hear that others are still feeding way beyond 12 months! We’re now just feeding before bed and sometimes before naps but i’m so proud that this is my little girl’s “decision” and that i didn’t bow to any pressure to force weaning on her any sooner than when she was ready.

    • Well, let me counteract all the negativity you’ve been hearing: you are doing a fantastic job meeting your daughter’s emotional and physical needs. It’s still beneficial and this time is so short.

  • Completely agree and this is a great post for women who are still feeding and need support to continue. If you hear negativity too often, it can influence your decisions and that leads to regrets. I too need my space at times but I know I won’t be completely comfortable with the end of our breastfeeding journey if it is instigated by me rather than my son.
    Kate Buckley (@scattymumofboys) recently posted..Breastfeeding Awareness Week 2012 & another ***Competition***

    • Yes, what we hear from others can definitely affect. I’m hoping that even if our weaning ends up gently parent-led that it will be for my own reasons and not because of any outside pressure.

  • This is a fabulous, well written article. I was one of those “Once they can ask for it, they’re too old for it.” Until I had my son, and realized he “asked” for it from the time he was born! In the first few days of life, he would root around to let me know he was hungry. Then, he would cry when the hunger pains hit. Soon, he was signing “eat” or “milk,” and by nine months would say “Mick” when he wanted milk. My second son didn’t say anything until he was almost two…does that mean it was acceptable to nurse him for two years, but my older son only to nine months? 🙂 Of course not! My oldest two did wean at 13 and 14 months, respectively, due to changes in my milk from pregnancy. My third, and only daughter, didn’t seem to mind or notice changes in my milk during my fourth pregnancy, and is still going strong at almost two and a half. I’ve gone through a few rough patches where I wanted to give up, and I really like your advice to get support if you feel like you want to stop. I did, and I always got through those touched-out phases very grateful that I didn’t give in and wean her. While I wouldn’t say my sons and I have suffered from their early weaning, I definately have a strogner bond with my daughter than I did with them at her age. Maybe it’s due to nursing, maybe it’s our shared gender, maybe it’s something else altogether…but it’s absolutely wonderful.
    Saruskabeth recently posted..Hello world!

    • What a great comment! I love what you say about them asking for it from the start because it’s so true! You have such a wealth of breastfeeding experience with your three. Thanks for sharing!

  • Hi Adele,

    Btw, this is my first time to visit your blog.
    but anyway, nice write-up about breastfeeding beyond one.
    My little girl is 17 months and I am still nursing her sometime and at the same time weaning her little by little.
    Niña recently posted..Emergency

    • Hi Nina, thanks for stopping by. I hope you and your daughter continue to have a satisfying experience right to the end. x

  • Brilliant and such a Well thought out and written post.
    I have to be honest, even though I breast fed both of mine and I am glad I did, i find it odd why children passed 18 months, and more so over the age of two, continue to be breast fed. I guess I just feel that they look too big for it maybe. I don’t know , I just don’t think it looks as ‘nice’ as seeing a baby being attached to the boob.
    I am in no way anti breast feeding toddlers, it’s just something I personally wouldn’t want to do myself. xx
    Jenny Paulin recently posted..Burton Aged Almost 3 Years

    • Thanks for such an honest comment, Jenny. As you know, you’re not alone in feeling that way. A lot of people agree with you. I do wonder, though, why it seems strange and whether it’s because you haven’t seen it very much.

      I think that’s what it was for me. I used to think a baby who could walk and talk was too old to breastfeed but now that Talitha is taking her first steps and has started saying “Meow”, I realise how arbitrary that mental cut off point I’d drawn was.

      I think also, it could have to do with your own personal experience. When our babies are newborns we can’t imagine breastfeeding older babies, when they’re older babies we can’t imagine breastfeeding toddlers and so on.

  • So pleased to have found your post on the Keep Britain Breastfeeding archives, I’m off to add it to my BritMums breastfeeding round up (probably October’s). I didn’t plan to breastfeed a toddler too and it’s quite a journey getting there, isn’t it – one I’ll be writing about soon. I’m thankful and happy with natural term weaning and the wanting your body back thing has never been an issue for me. Nice to read like-minded blogs 🙂

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