Breastfeeding: How old is too old?

mum breastfeeding older baby and giving it a kiss

When is your child too old for breastfeeding?

Breastfeeding is possibly the single most divisive topic a mum has to deal with. Whilst most of us are now positively encouraged to breastfeed our newborn babies ‘for as long as possible and practical’, somehow the idea of a four year old breastfeeding is still offensive to many. Are you risking damaging your child’s emotional development more by allowing them to breastfeed as long as they like, or by enforcing a societal expectation and weaning them at perhaps two? Why would you even want to breastfeed beyond 6 months? Its a question that is often asked about breastfeeding: How old is too old?

Nature and nurture

Breastfeeding is nature’s way of nurturing both mother and child: physically and emotionally. Most of you will be fully aware that breast milk is nutritionally perfect for your baby and contains the antibodies to protect them over the first few months of their lives. Did you also know that the immunologic factors in breast milk continue for as long as you breastfeed? Antibodies don’t wear out or disappear when your child reaches a certain age, so your toddler will still benefit from the antibodies in breastmilk. 

Some of you may have been warned that allowing your toddler – or older child – to continue to breastfeed will result in serious enmeshment issues in later life. They will strive to control the parent, they may have attachment issues and so on. Counter to this argument is that children who breastfeed longer are MORE independent and emotionally secure than those weaned from the breast earlier.

‘The average worldwide age for weaning is 4.5 years old’.

I’ve heard it. I’ve read it in numerous posts. I’ve even seen and heard it attributed to WHO. But I cannot find any evidence for this. What I did find was WHO strongly advocating exclusive breastfeeding of babies up to six months, and that ideally they should continue to be breastfed to two years and beyond. WHO 10 facts on breastfeeding

Self wean or enforced wean?

There is no right or wrong answer to this question, it is what suits mother and baby. My experience was that breastfeeding became more enjoyable as my children got older and it was much less work than those early days where you are both learning or sometimes overcoming problems. So it seemed natural to self wean.

Others around me set time limits for weaning and these were all at very different ages from six months to two years. The reasons for weaning varied from wanting to try to conceive to sticking to plans made before baby was born. We all did what suited us and years on we all have happy healthy children and you can’t tell who self weaned and who didn’t.

Don’t rock the boat!

mum breastfeeding her older childMany western societies are only now reluctantly re-accepting the normality of breastfeeding babies publically. Many European countries, especially places like Italy and Greece seem far ahead of the US, Australia and NZ. Perhaps because they never fell into the ‘bottle is best’ mentality that dominated other countries for so long. To push the ‘boundaries’ of public acceptance for breastfeeding beyond say two years, may create a backlash – doing more harm to the cause than good.

Or maybe it will help to push to the fore the importance of allowing each mother and child the freedom and support to determine what is best for them. Perhaps more mothers who have breastfed beyond pre-school will stand up to join the likes of Maha Al-Musa and Jamie-Lynne Grumet.

Breastfeeding is a joy and a privilege

It doesn’t happen easily, or at all for everyone. When to stop is ultimately your choice. Do what YOU feel comfortable with. And don’t be afraid to do your research. Check the ‘facts’ that are bandied about. And don’t be discouraged by some of the frankly moronic and downright pathetic comments sexualising breastfeeding that, sadly but inevitably, appear in the forums and chat.

Whatever you – or your child – decide, enjoy the moment. It won’t last forever.

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