twitter facebook stumble upon rss

Extreme Breastfeeding

sign up for the momlogic newsletter Tweet This

How old is too old?

Breastfeeding has been everywhere these days: Salma Hayek breastfeeding another woman's baby in Africa, the Facebook flap over breastfeeding photos, and that beautiful W cover shot of Angelina Jolie breastfeeding. Seems like everybody's got breastfeeding on the brain. But when is a child too old to be breastfed? Some moms shockingly say five, six, seven, eight -- or beyond.

By now, you've probably seen the video of Veronica, the woman who breastfed one daughter until age five and is still breastfeeding her eight-year-old, Eliza.

According to the CDC, 20% of mothers were still breastfeeding at 12 months. No one keeps count how many women breastfeed their kids beyond 18 months, not even La Leche League International, reports the Boston Globe. But evidence shows the "extreme breastfeeding" trend is growing. Katherine Dettwyler , the nation's leading breastfeeding researcher, says women who continue to nurse typically keep quiet about it, sometimes even to family members, because the culture is so biased against it.

"People say, 'Oh, he's going to think he's having sex with his mother!' " she says. "Well, no. Only if you socialize him to think that way. This is a biological process. Human beings are wired to naturally wean sometime after 2 1/2."

"There's no reason to think it is abnormal or pathological or sick," says Nancy Holtzman, a board-certified lactation consultant.

next: Body Found Identified as Missing Ark. Boy
124 comments so far | Post a comment now
Tammy October 14, 2008, 9:57 AM

So ok, you want to do the best for your child. What about pumping your milk? In our society, once the children they attend school with see this, they may get teased and who would wish that on their child? At least here in America, maybe it’s more common in other countries.

aMama October 14, 2008, 10:56 AM

Young children are also comforted by the act of nursing, its not soley for nourishment. And why should such a beautiful and natural thing be disrupted at any age just because our society is so ignorant on the topic? My daughter nursed for 2.5 years and stopped when I dried up half way through my pregnancy with #2. She is outgoing, happy and very healthy. I plan to nurse this one until he self-weans as well. It is what is natural and what God intended. I don’t care what society thinks because I know society is wrong and I only want whats best for my child. And that is self weaning.

Oh and I doubt kids are going to sit around talking about this, so it’s not likely they will be teased.

Anonymous October 14, 2008, 10:59 AM


cara October 14, 2008, 11:05 AM

This reminds me of an old MadTV skit where he mom’s umbilicle cord was still attached to the grown son. I don’t think you should be breastfeeding once a kid can hold a cup properly. I mean come on, become a nursing maid if YOU enjoy it so much, because breastfeeding after the toddler years is just wierd.

Eliza October 14, 2008, 11:32 AM

I breastfed mine roughly to 3 years old, but made sure once they were potty trained they were off. No matter what the age was 3 for me though. I think beyond that starts looking strange. Plus those that go to school (guessing these two are homeschooled) it would be one of those things that would have others make fun of them.

krista October 14, 2008, 12:48 PM

Anonymous, that’s really brave to say something is sick from behind the cover of anonymity. If you really believe in something, be brave, put your name on it.

Cara, I don’t think people should wear pants that show off their thongs and butt cracks so that I have to look at them. I mean, if they want to show off their “stuff” they should just become strippers because wearing clothes like that is just weird. Everyone’s got an opinion and you’re entitled to yours, but if you think that moms who breastfeed toddlers do it for themselves, you’re seriously misinformed.

Eliza, most kids that go to school don’t announce that they are still breastfeeding. Both of mine were breastfed past the age that kids start school and neither of them reported any teasing. I really don’t think it’s a subject that is likely to come up in conversation.

Marinka October 14, 2008, 1:48 PM

That is waaay beyond my comfort zone. I am very much of the “live and let live” school of thought, but breastfeeding a child past a certain age has to do with more than nutrition, and I’m not sure that all of it is healthy.

That being said, I find it interesting that this discussion is sparked by Angelina Jolie feeding an infant.

julia October 14, 2008, 1:52 PM

Kid’s start eating table food around one year old. By 2 they definitely don’t NEED breastmilk, but it can be comforting to them, especially if they are ill or hospitalized. I bf both my daughters, one for 19 months, one for 2 1/2 years. Both times I allowed the child to determine when. They just stopped coming to me. I suppose I could have encouraged it, but honestly there wasn’t anything in it for me by then. I had done my duty. I don’t know what makes women want to do it beyond 2-3 years, but I suspect it doesn’t have anything to do with what the kid wants.

Grace October 14, 2008, 1:56 PM

I have breast fed all four of my children till they self weeaed. One is 24 -a graduate of Brown Unuversity, one just turned 16 and is on the US olympic development team as a skier. The other two are doing just as well. Yesterday for the school holiday the yard was filled with kids to play with my very healthy normal kids. The length of breast feeding is simply a personal choice. It is only offensive if you subject others to your breast feeding.

PrettyFace October 14, 2008, 2:23 PM

A.) you didn’t define what the question was. Is nursing past a year okay? yes. Is nursing until a child is 8 okay? that is a different question.
In many many non-victorian prude societies children are nursed until they are either 2 or 4 years of age depending on the availability of other age appropriate foods. There is scientific research pointing to a tie between food allergies and early introductions of foods (early being younger than 2 years) because the studies suggest that the body is not designed to handle complicated proteins until 18 months to 2 years of age. Milk, eggs, chicken, beef, and the every famous peanut allergy are all allergies to complicated proteins which the body cannot properly break down. Breast milk contains very simple proteins (hence why breast fed babies do not sleep as long as formula babies between feedings)

Missy October 14, 2008, 2:32 PM

I just can’t see myself doing that. My son is almost 5 and I just can’t see him coming to me at this age to nurse. The thought actually grosses me out.

praying4baby#2 October 14, 2008, 3:40 PM

I have a hard time watching it! It’s just odd. It’s like their security blanket! They’re too old for that!

Máire Clements October 14, 2008, 4:30 PM

It is fascinating how controversy has become so linked to any discussion of breastfeeding.

It is a wee bit of a stretch that after looking at Angelina’s cover on W, one’s mind would jump from an infant twin at a movie star’s breast to the idea of extreme breastfeeding. I know she was a rebel, but she’s a mother now.

I find it a real view into our culture to read the comments on any post that pushes these hot buttons of public or extended breastfeeding.

In anthropological terms, 2-1/2-7 years is the norm. However, that is not what is common in this day and age. We do not have real statistics about extended or “extreme breastfeeding” because most mothers who do it are not in your face lactivists.

Just the other day I ran into a mom and her daughter. I had helped them initiate and maintain their breastfeeding relationship 12+ years ago. This articulate, well-rounded and gifted young woman that I met there on the street had breastfed for 7+ years!

She shared with me that, in her circle of friends at school, there were several more tweens whose mothers had breastfed them for a long time.

I will be interviewing her and her mother for an upcoming podcast and book on this subject.

I see this as a unique opportunity to learn more about the process of breastfeeding from the child’s side. The majority in my practice stop before they are verbal and old enough to understand some of the politics of extended nursing.

I am open to hear her point of view and wonder if it will change the prejudice against extended breastfeeding in our culture.

Cyndi October 14, 2008, 5:18 PM

The people that are offended by so-called extended breastfeeing are grossed out by a normal human function, but think it’s okay to feed a human child milk that is biologically fomulated for a cow?

I don’t get it… breastfeeding isn’t about sex, and it isn’t going to make kids weird. It will make them smart and strong and independent.

So sayeth she whose daughter self-weaned at 2.5 years, much to my dismay.

Sarabeth October 14, 2008, 5:20 PM

La Leche League publishes a wonderful book called “How Weaning Happens,” which discusses child-led weaning, and that the world-wide average is age 4. From about age 2 on, it becomes less important nutritionally, but is still crucial emotionally. I let my son nurse as long as he wanted to, and by 3.5 years he just gradually lost interest, which was quite a nice experience. I fully agree with Dr. Sears, that it is not up to the mother to teach the child independence, but to provide a nurturing, safe atmosphere that allows the child to develop independence on his own. That’s what child-led nursing is all about.

sara October 14, 2008, 5:40 PM

Oh good grief. Not this, again? Ok. I’ll play along.

First off, the girl in that famous video was actually 7 years old. She had not yet had her 8th birthday.

The natural age for weaning is approximately 5-8 years old, which means that she falls perfectly within the norm.

No, not societal norm. Biological norm.

1- Children are immunocompromised until approximately 7 years of age. At about 7 years of age they reach the adult levels of immunocompetence. Until this time they can benefit tremendously from mom’s antibodies through her milk. Note that “drink it from a cup” is not an appropriate response. Mom manufactures antibodies based on contact with the child. Breastmilk without contact with the breast is still beneficial but the child does not receive full benefits unless they are nursing. If we look at other primates and other animals, this immunocompetence is a common biological milestone for weaning.

2- Until the child’s permanent teeth come in, the child is benefited tremendously from breastfeeding. It helps build their jaw strength, it helps build the strong teeth with healthy enamel. Suckling at the breast helps the teeth go into their proper positions, helps the formation of the palate. If we look at other primates, the loss of one’s “milk teeth” coincides with weaning. In humans this happens at around 5-8 years old. Guess what else happens at about this time. Baby’s suckling reflex naturally disappears. (Note: suckling REFLEX not sucking habit. Thumb suckers and pacifier users who have been prematurely weaned often carry their sucking HABIT well into later childhood and sometimes even adulthood.

3- At about 7-8 years of age the child’s brain has reached its adult size. Before this, the child’s brain is still growing rapidly and benefits tremendously from the brain-healthy fats in human milk. Our milk is geared for the optimal development of our species. In humans our survival depends on BRAIN DEVELOPMENT. Intelligence. In cows it depends on body development. Bulk. Flubber. So why does it make sense to wean our still-developing children off of the optimal source of nutrition for their developing brains onto a food that promotes obesity and that has to be watered down in order to lower its health risks? Oh, and then there’s the fact that it promotes anemia…

4- Other natural milestones common to primates similar to humans: when the child reaches 1/3rd of his/her healthy adult weight. Often around 5-8 years old. When the child reaches 1/3rd of the way to sexual maturity… Keep in mind that normal sexual maturity in children that are not exposed to artificial hormones in milk of another species, soy beans, and BPA-laden bottles.. Is closer to 15-17 rather than the 9-12 year old puberty mark today. So that has us weaning at around 5-8.

There is no such thing as extreme breastfeeding. Unless you’re breastfeeding while jumping out of a helicopter. There IS extreme weaning. It’s practiced every day in this country when children are weaned at 6 weeks, 6 months or one year of age despite their systems still being extremely reliant on mom’s milk.

You’re confusing “full term” breastfeeding with “extreme” breastfeeding and you’re confusing “premature weaning” with “normal.

Tabitha October 14, 2008, 5:55 PM

SO 8 may be a bit long in my opinion and I bet the children tried to self wean more than once, BUT nursing past age 1 or 2 is normal. We are the only country in the world that promotes weaning by the parent, and weaning at such young ages. The world health organization recommends ATLEAST 2 years and the Amercian academy of pediatrics says 6 months of nothing BUT breastmilk, then solids and breastmilk until age 1 as a minimum….

A childs immune system isn’t fully developed until age 2 and BM gives immunities that nothing else can provide.

Humans are also the only mammal that gives our infants artificial milk, that weans our child before they are ready to do it themselves, AND we are the only species that drinks milk made for another animals infants on a regular basis. How is drinking human breastmilk any different in grossness than drinking a cows breastmilk…what do you think the milk we drink is??

Yes 8 years is extreme, ages 1,2,3, or even 4…NO. A child doesn’t naturally begin weaning until age 18-24 months and thats begin weaning.

Barb October 14, 2008, 6:26 PM

I feel it is great to breast feed for the first 18 mos or less but more than that it is a Mommy thing not a child thing. It is a problem the mother has detaching themselves and letting the child grow up. When a child goes to school and gets thirsty what then?
Let your toddlers become toddlers and grow as they were meant to. Animals don’t nurse their children for 7 or 8 years.

Coralie October 14, 2008, 7:08 PM

What if a child gets thirsty? Children who are breastfed actually are allowed to drink water, or juice, or even soft-drink if they so choose. Breastfeeding a child doesn’t mean they forego every other form of liquid or solid nutrition.

Security blankets—actual blankets, or toys, or dummies (binkies, pacifiers, whatever you want to call them)—are prevalent in our society for children of all kinds of ages. My child is five yeras old & still breastfeeds at night to go to sleep. I rarely offer these days; he asks. It’s very much a ‘security blanket’ for him & I’m very pleased about it. I’m glad that he has a security blanket that is his living, breathing, loving mother, rather than a piece of fabric or a toy.

Mothers do love to hold their children close for as lang as the child needs it. So they should! Mothers who use mind games to keep their children attached to the ‘apron strings’ for their own unmet needs are not doing the right thing, but a mother who wants her child to feel safe & secure for as long as the child needs it is doing the best she can to bring up a child who will grow to feel happy, secure & have a healthy self-esteem. Imagine if we had a world full of people like that?!

Anyone who thinks a mother continues to breastfeed an older child does so for herself surely must not realise that it can actually be frustrating at times to continue brastfeeding when sometimes you would prefer to be doing something else (similar to when a child won’t go to sleep when *you* would like them to) or to breastfeed when your breasts are sore (similar to when a child wraps their arms around your neck & hugs so hard because they ‘love you *so* much, mummy!’).

Providing comfort & a feeling of security (with the bonus of antibodes that don’t have to be delivered via needle!) to your child in the best way you can is not something that is disgusting or gross. It’s normal & it’s natural. It’s really sad that so many people have been brainwashed by big companies, with only more money as their goal, into believing otherwise.

Erin October 14, 2008, 7:14 PM

When a child goes to school and gets thirsty what then?

LMAO! Hmm, maybe the water fountain?

Oh Barb, you’re so silly. Do you think that moms who nurse until 2 or 3 aren’t feeding their children anything else? As a child grows older they nurse less often. It’s more about comfort and bonding at that age than it is about nutrition.

Believe me, it’s NOT a mommy thing. It’s for the benefit of the child.

Back to top >>