Last summer a colleague and I were chatting about life with kids. His baby was approaching a year old and he mentioned that his wife was starting to feel pressure to wean, despite not feeling ready. I assured him that my kids were nowhere near ready to wean at that age either. Then came an innocent question that struck me like a bolt of lightning: “how old were your kids when they weaned?”
My kids were 5 and 3. Both of them were still breastfeeding.
I usually have no trouble causally mentioning that both of my kids were still nursing past age 2, 3, and 4. I’m surrounded by many amazing parents who support full-term breastfeeding. This time felt a bit different because it was a colleague. We hadn’t talked in-depth about our parenting philosophies. I felt like I had a professional reputation to uphold, which would be destroyed if I revealed that I was secretly some kind of weird hippie who breastfed her kindergartener (true), makes everything out of hemp, lives in a commune, and brushes her teeth with clay (all false).
I mumbled something about weaning around age 4 and changed the subject. Later that day I googled, “breastfeeding a 5 year old.” The result was several “freak show” style stories about mothers breastfeeding older kids, with the titles and articles explicitly or implicitly questioning whether it was healthy or normal practice, and whether the children would be scarred. Noticeably absent were stories from mothers themselves who continued to nurse their children beyond infancy and toddlerhood. So, I decided to “come out” with my own story of breastfeeding my child until just after her sixth birthday.
Preparing to breastfeed
Before my daughter was born, I knew that I wanted to breastfeed. I also prepared to breastfeed. I took a breastfeeding class. My wonderful sister-in-law, who had given birth to her first child just a few months earlier, had given me a copy of The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding, which I devoured. An anecdote in the book was about a 10-month-old baby who abruptly stopped nursing. The mother tried a variety of tactics to get the baby to nurse again, and succeeded. The baby then went on to nurse for another two years before weaning just before his third birthday. When I read this story as the mother of a newborn, I was confused. Breastfeeding for nearly a year seemed like a pretty good run. Don’t most people breastfeed for about a year? Breastfeeding nearly three years seemed completely unnecessary and a little strange. I was certain I’d be done by then.
A second pregnancy and tandem nursing
I got pregnant again when my daughter was 18 months old. We kept on nursing reasonably comfortably until the halfway point of my pregnancy when my supply dropped precipitously. We had just celebrated her second birthday, which meant that we had made it to the World Health Organization’s recommended minimum duration of breastfeeding. I would have been happy to stop. My daughter, on the other hand, would have been distraught. She really wanted to nurse, if only briefly, before falling asleep. As an exhausted pregnant mother and full-time graduate student, turning this part of our day together into a battle was not on my agenda. So we trudged on.
Breastfeeding through pregnancy is no easy task, and this chapter was the low point of our nursing relationship. I developed nursing aversion, and a visceral “get off me” appeared every time she latched on. We were down to nursing once or twice a day for mere moments. I was nervous. What if the aversion never lifted? What if I felt it with the new baby?
Happily, all aversion lifted immediately when my younger daughter was born. The milk also came back with a vengeance. My toddler, who had finally begun to subsist on solid food, started nursing like a newborn again. Around the holidays, a week or so went by during which she ingested nothing but breastmilk and perhaps a few gingerbread cookies. I used to joke that I suddenly had a child who needed to nurse around the clock… and a newborn.
The preschool years
By about age 4, we had finally established the breastfeeding pattern of morning and night, a routine that my pre-kid self naively thought we would reach by a year old, if not sooner. Happily, I found that breastfeeding a 4 year old is much more enjoyable than breastfeeding a 2 year old. In my experience, a 4 year old has a pretty good ability to understand and cooperate when you say, “we can nurse at bedtime; right now you can have a snack instead.” With a 2 year old, nursing limits are much more likely to result in meltdowns. Of course, I was nursing both a 4 year old and a 2 year old by this point, so I had to learn how to breastfeed with boundaries, which in my case was a fancy way of saying that you have to stay on the go a lot, try not to let them get bored or they will want to nurse, and keep a bunch of juice boxes handy that you only give them when you are desperate to be left alone for just one minute. JUST ONE MINUTE.
The self-weaning years
Once my daughter turned 5, the breastfeeding club started to feel a bit lonelier. Many of my friends who breastfed until self-weaning or close were done by the time their children were 3 or 4. Here we were still going strong. Thankfully I had support from a small number of friends who I knew only from online interactions who also nursed their older children. Together, we had gone through the triumphs and trials of nursing in public, figuring out tandem nursing, having people ask whether we are STILL breastfeeding, and then having people stop asking us that as our kids grew older and everyone assumed we had weaned.
Although I was happy to breastfeed my 5 year old, I also started to get a little concerned that weaning was not in sight. I had heard a few stories of mothers nursing until 7 or 8, and although I fully support those mothers, I knew that was not for me. I started to wonder whether we were “at risk” for that scenario. Then, like magic, one day my daughter fell asleep without nursing. Then she forgot again the next day. And the next. An entire week went by during which my daughter happily fell asleep without a mention of breastfeeding. I thought that might be the end. It turned out to be the beginning of the end. At the end of the week she asked again. As she approached her 6thbirthday, she regularly forgot to ask to nurse for about two to three weeks at a time. Occasionally she would ask, but I would suggest snuggling to sleep instead, and she accepted that. After the first day of first grade she really wanted to nurse again, so I obliged. She didn’t ask again for months. We nursed one final time later that fall. And then we were done.
I feel lucky to have been supported by a wonderful network of family, friends, and acquaintances who are very supportive of breastfeeding. I nursed in public for years when my kids were babies and toddlers, and never received a single negative comment from anyone. I even got several positive comments. I was never to be questioned about my breastfeeding relationship with my children. I know not all mamas have such a positive experience. Some are regularly hassled by family members and strangers about breastfeeding beyond infancy. In particular, a few frequently asked questions seem to top the list.
Is that normal?
Yes, breastfeeding past infancy and toddlerhood is biologically normal for humans. Anthropologist Kathy Dettwyler has calculated a natural age of weaning for humans by observing other species. For example, among non-human primates, weaning age corresponds loosely with the age of the first permanent molars appearing. For humans, that is around age 5.5-6. Other large mammals typically nurse their young until they have approximately quadrupled their birthweight. For humans, this tends to occur between 2.5 and 3.5 years. A series of similar calculations led Dettwyler to conclude that a natural age of weaning for humans is between 2.5-7 years.
Is that healthy?
Through some combination of luck and breastfeeding, my children never seem to get sick beyond the occasional sniffle. I know not every breastfeeding child is so lucky, but the immune-boosting benefits of breastfeeding do not come with an expiration date. Studies show that as children get older and the volume of breastmilk consumed decreases, the concentration of immune factors in breastmilk increases.
Can’t they just eat solid food?
This question demonstrates a lack of knowledge about the purpose of breastfeeding outside of its role as a source of calories. We adults sometimes eat meals purely for sustenance, but other times enjoy a long and leisurely meal to re-connect with a partner. Food not only sustain us physically; it is part of a bonding ritual. The same is true of breastfeeding. Babies and young toddlers may breastfeed in large part to fill up on food. For older children it’s more likely to be a way to re-connect with a familiar ritual after a day mother and child were both busy with other people and projects. It’s no longer a major source of calories.
Do we really need to see that?
“We need to see mothers breastfeeding in restaurants, subway stations, waiting rooms and local parks. We need to see mothers breastfeeding newborn babies, infants, toddlers and preschoolers. We need to see pictures of mothers breastfeeding on social media sites, news stands and billboards, as well as on TV shows and in films. We need to be so familiar with breastfeeding, with seeing it, talking about it and understanding it, that none of the scenarios above would raise a single eyebrow. Because if we continue to treat it as a secretive art form, reserved for private rooms and hushed conversations, it will remain a taboo. It will become lost in the passage of time; further misunderstood and out of reach for future mothers.”
Will my child ever wean?
Yes, rest assured that your child will wean. Every child eventually weans. You do not need to impose weaning on your child. Of course, many mothers choose to do so when they tire of breastfeeding before their children do. Mother-led weaning is certainly a valid choice. But so is child-led weaning. If you are feeling unsupported in your decision to continue to breastfeed, find a community of other mothers, in person or online, who have your back. You may not know it when you see us at the grocery store, the park, or at work, but we are out there.