Would you breastfeed a child past age two?

Two moms face off on the topic of extended breastfeeding.

Photo: iStockphoto
Photo: iStockphoto

“Yes.”
Lois Kelly,* mom of three

You probably won’t believe this unless you try it, but I think breastfeeding a toddler is your reward for breastfeeding an infant. Remember those first few months — all those exhausted hours you spent on the couch, drenched in milk? The greedy bundle in your arms who would clamp down on your nipple with the force of a steel trap, as she shrieked and flailed like a thousand tortured cats? And you were too drained to fix the baby’s latch, find the burp cloth or remember to do up your nursing bra before leaving the house?

Nursing a toddler is nothing like that. Nursing at this age is magic. No leaking, no engorgement, no spit up and no 4 a.m. scream fests. Your child can engage in rational conversations about nursing rules. You can nurse as often or as little as the two of you wish. It calms tantrums, and provides an extra health benefit that is hard to replicate. It can be a lovely way to help smooth over the often-bumpy road toward independence, especially if you work outside the home, like I do, and sometimes struggle with keeping and growing your unique bond with your children.

One of my children was five when he finally weaned for good; another was four. To answer the FAQs: Yes, my nursing children also ate regular food with utensils, and drank regular drinks out of cups. No, I didn’t have to go to school at recess to nurse them. Yes, I could leave them overnight and they were fine. No, they were never teased by their friends. (What kinds of conversations do you think four-year-olds have, anyway?) Yes, eventually all children will stop nursing on their own, even if you don’t force them. Yes, really.

You’re not a bad mother because you choose to wean your child. And I’m not a bad mother because I choose to let my children wean themselves, even though it has taken several years. There are a thousand strands binding mothers to their children. Some we cut. Others we let go of very gently. Breastfeeding was one of my most gentle strands. I don’t regret that for a minute.

*Name has been changed.

“No.”
Alyson Schafer, mom of two

I was having coffee with a friend, when her two-and-a-half-year-old son came into the kitchen, crawled onto her lap and started undoing her blouse. At first, I thought he was just being mischievous. “Not now,” she told him, but he kept clawing at her buttons. He started demanding, “Booby, Mommy, booby!” She scolded him again, “No! Not now!” After a few more minutes of struggling to keep her blouse intact, she caved to his demands, unbuttoned her blouse and nursed him. He was old enough to walk, talk, crawl on a lap and demand he get his way. My rule of thumb: Stop nursing when your child can ask for it by name. Doubly so if they are being rude about it!

My hairdresser told me she once had a three-year-old in the salon who refused to get his hair cut. To her shock and surprise, the mother pulled up her shirt and started nursing him and said, “ There, now you can cut his hair—he won’t move.” Awkward!

As a feminist, I believe women need to be free to make choices for themselves, especially about their bodies and their babies. But I just don’t buy into Dr. Sears’ attachment-parenting argument that recommends women extend breastfeeding into the toddler and preschool years. If Dr. Sears’ methods for creating attachments were correct, every bottle-fed person should have emotional problems, and sorry—they just don’t. I’m pretty sure neither my friend nor the mom at the salon was actually having a love-filled, bonding moment. In fact, both were rolling their eyes.

My experience has been that late-nursing mothers have difficulties setting other limits and boundaries for their kids, too. A focus that is too child-centric and too extreme results in uncooperative children who tend to be self-interested and demanding.

To me, the most compelling argument is the simple notion that parenting is about moving our children from dependence to autonomy. They need to move from being carried to walking, from high chair to sitting at the table, from breast to cup. Delaying that progression is not beneficial; it stunts their development. But of course, that is just my opinion. You decide for yourself.

This article was originally published in August 2012.

Read more:
What I see when I breastfeed my toddler
Extended breastfeeding shouldn’t be a big deal
Breastfeeding: When to start weaning your toddler

19 Comments