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Extreme Breastfeeding

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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.

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124 comments so far | Post a comment now
musikpro October 14, 2008, 7:14 PM

The last time my son asked to breastfeed he was 8 and it had been about a year before that when he had last suckled. From age 3 on, he only nursed occasionally. Usually it was when he wasn’t feeling well or when our relationship was stressed over a discipline issue. He “needed” to nurse to feel close to me again and to know that things were OK between us. The final time he tried, he’d forgotten how and we had a great laugh and went on with our lives. He’s 19 and an extremely independent, bright young man—no doubt in part, due to years of breastfeeding/breastmilk. I have no regrets.

He did, in fact, have some school-aged friends who discussed breastfeeding and there was nothing but positive comments all around. The ones who could remember doing it spoke fondly of it and the ones who didn’t were a little envious. It was very sweet to hear those conversations. I believe those who were envious realized the closeness of the mother/child bond and wished they could experience it as well.

Jackie P. October 14, 2008, 9:03 PM

My, my. Sara does like to see herself in print. Perhaps the more times she repeats her favorite words she’ll think she actually sounds like she’s presenting an intelligent argument. Bottom line: Cite all the obscure online sites you can find on this, or any other contoversial subject. The fact of the matter is, in our society, breast-feeding a second-grade child is simply NOT the norm. Exceptions to every rule, granted. Just don’t try to sell it as “perfectly normal.”

Teriqua October 14, 2008, 11:48 PM

Reading the comments, I believe Tammy addressed thee issue with sanity, grace and objectivity. Go Tammy!
I can honestly tell you that if I saw a child past 3 or 4 breast-feeding, it would give me the creeps. If there is no distinct age to stop; lets go with the theory which makes most sense; when baby starts growing teeth it’s time to stop breast-feeding.

Alexia October 15, 2008, 6:19 AM

I don’t have a problem with nursing until 2 or 3, but after that I don’t think I could. It would be weird to see someone else nursing a child older than that too.

renee October 15, 2008, 6:20 AM

at 2 yrs old yes…5 and 8 in america thats inching up to the line of sexual assault.naming and touching them and complaining that they are ina bra is creepy.these kids are gonna be picked on and need therapy for ever.

Jennifer October 15, 2008, 9:19 AM

I don’t have an issue with breast feeding, although it does seem quite strange when the children are that old. I understand all of the ‘extras’ kids are supposed to get when they’re breastfed and all of that and I’m okay with that also. What I’m not okay with is the lactation Nazis that are floating around these days!
I have four children and I attempted to breast feed every one of them. With my first I was very young and did both, the bottle and the breast and for me the bottle was easier. (Breast feeding wasn’t the same kind of issue in 1993 as it is now though………) I had my second child six years later and she threw up every bit I fed her! Every little bit and it scared me to death. I did have some bleeding, did all the ‘right’ stuff and pressed on (urged by my MIL.) I finally reached the point after a few days when I KNEW she was not getting anything and tried the bottle. She threw all of that up too! So of course it was off to the doctor. My daughter is still allergic to milk and all milk products to this day and it wasn’t because I didn’t breast feed her. I was because she was born that way. There are also many other children in our family that have the same allergy.
My third one I breast fed until he was six weeks and my milk dried up. I tried to pump, everything, I just had nothing left to give.
My fourth was breast fed for about 2 days and could not latch on properly! It was horrible! Even when we put her on the bottle, the milk just ran down the sides of her mouth. Right now she’s four and smart as a whip. All of my kids are. I never propped them up with a bottle. I held them, burped them, sang to them, rocked them to sleep every night…….I WAS AND STILL AM A MOTHER TO THEM! (BTW, my youngest was checked out by our pediatrician and had no defects with her palate or mouth in any way.)
I think it’s all about how much time you invest in your kids. That’s the real issue here. If this woman wants to breast feed for eternity, yeah, I think it’s a little weird, but as long as she’s doing it in the privacy of her own home, it’s her decision.
This is one area I am so tired of people drawing the line in the sand about! Let’s get down and dirty about moms who smoke IN FRONT of their kids, or who don’t put them in car seats — issues that are a matter of LIFE AND DEATH!
And to all you lactation Nazis. Breast feed your own kids, educate if you want, but don’t judge! Get a life!

Anna's Mommy October 15, 2008, 10:00 AM

….sara….Have you/Do you breastfeed? You seem pretty knowledgeable on the subject, but knowledge and actually putting your knowledge to use are very different.
I am breastfeeding my 9 month old daughter at the moment and I am going to continue because it is a good thing. However she has already started self-weaning herself, and not because I am not available or don’t offer.
Primates don’t breastfeed their offspring for 8 years! And I really don’t appreciate myself/daughter being compared to the lower life.
Breastfeeding is a choice as is almost everything else in life. You can take it to one extreme “not enough” to the other, “too much”. Where is the happy median?
Child-rearing Experts/Peditricians tell us “do this/don’t do that”, but when it comes to their own children, they just do what works.
Okay…I have now added “my opinion”, now it is your turn.

Kate October 15, 2008, 10:08 AM

People need to settle down. If you don’t like “extreme breastfeeding,” then don’t do it. We’re not on your blogs, bashing you for formula feeding, or giving your kids junk food, or otherwise criticizing your parenting choices. My daughter is almost 9 months, still breastfeeding frequently, and we’ll keep going until she is ready to stop. Believe me — there were plenty of times (and sometimes still are) when I feel it would be easier to stop. If she bites me, if she’s being an acrobat; and early on when we had latching trouble. But I kept going because it was best for my daughter, and it will continue to be so for a long time, either physically or emotionally.

I pretty much feel like I’m part of a counter-culture now. I do lots of things most people just don’t do. If you do any real research, instead of just looking at what society tells you, you’ll see how biologically awful MANY of our choices are today….

Kelly October 15, 2008, 11:09 AM

I have to weigh in on this one. I used to be one of those people who think that a child is too old to nurse if he/she can ask for it. My perspective changed completely when I had my own kids. And I can assure you - the nursing wasn’t for me. I just knew instictively that letting them wean when they were ready was the way the biological function was supposed to work. I nursed my daughter for almost four years and my son for just over four years. Towards the end it wasn’t very frequent but was a life-saver when there was any kind of upset or trauma in their lives and at night. So fess up - how many of you out there who think that “extreme breastfeeding” is weird actually have expereince with it! Perhaps you had better keep your opinions to yourself until you try it!

S luvs Momo October 15, 2008, 2:09 PM

I think pumping is fine and if the older children see you pump or nurse it prepares them mentally for their own future as parents. Try to think of it this way…a few centuries ago women nursed until children could eat everything they needed to survive. That’s about age 2 1/2 and yes, the older kids saw them nursing babies. Our society is working too hard to push un-natural ideas on women and shame them and say it’s sick to breast feed too long….That’s what our breasts were designed for.

Sharon October 15, 2008, 2:26 PM

I am just happy that most of these comments have been very cordial and respectful…more logical. This is what I want from Momlogic (PS I did only read the first page) :-)

Allison October 15, 2008, 3:32 PM

My baby is 10 months old and she nurses about three times a day. She nurses to go to bed and to nap. I really enjoy nursing her and will not cut her off the day she turns one. In a world where it seems like so many mothers don’t breastfeed at all, I don’t see anything wrong with bf-ing your child past a year.

ladyjay October 15, 2008, 3:53 PM

o.k. people calm down.. Bfing can go on as long as you want it too. First of all Angelina is bfing a baby for “GOD’S ” sake goodness. I think that it is up to the mother and father as to how long a mother wants to bfeed. I teach breastfeeding and I don’t understand why alot of mothers let society tell them how long to bfeed. Stop judging guys.. Society has already screwed us up by creating formula. Some people see that it is free and give up.. And as far as “prettyface” is concerned,grab a book about breastfeeding and proteins honey their is nothing simple about breastmilk. It is a great source of nutrition for your child. Society loves to change everything and I for one cannot stand it. I am proud of the women who continues to bfeed as long as they want to… Stay out of their business. Goodness………

Sara October 15, 2008, 5:20 PM

Barb… Animals don’t nurse their babies for 7-8 years… Because their life expectancy or biological requirements are different from those of humans. In fact, dogs are typically independent from their parents at oh.. one year old? Should we kick our toddlers out?

If you follow biological weaning milestones in similar animals such as larger primates, the appropriate weaning time for a human child is 4-8 years old. Not 18 months. Where did you get 18 months anyway?

sara October 15, 2008, 5:25 PM

Jackie P., it has far less to do with liking to see myself in print, and far more to do with not liking the only voices that are in print to be the ones that are saying that breastfeeding past x age is “abnormal”.

Biologically speaking, it IS perfectly normal to breastfeed a child until they are biologically ready to wean. Society’s normal? No. I never claimed that. Society’s norm for weaning is much much much younger. And for absolutely arbitrary reasons.

Please cite a single study done that says that breastfeeding past a certain age is less than beneficial, or better yet- cite one that states that it causes harm. I’ve tried to find those studies and could find none. The American Association of Pediatricians recommends one year of breastfeeding at a minimum. The World Health Organization recommends two years at a minimum and the worldwide average age for weaning is approximately 4 years of age.

Honestly, I don’t care when someone else weans their child. I just find it a bit absurd when people state that child-led weaning is “harmful” when the only studies that exist show that it’s anything but.

Sara October 15, 2008, 5:36 PM

Anna’s mommy… Actually, yes. I’m breastfeeding a 22 month old child at the moment and am planning on allowing him to wean himself. Although honestly my personal upper comfort limit is about 4 years of age. Despite my knowledge that nursing beyond that is perfectly harmless and is actually beneficial.

At 9 months old a decreased interest in nursing is normal. Google “Nursing strikes”. Plenty of women far more knowledgeable than I have written on the topic. It’s also more common for children that have been introduced to solids before 6 months, children that spend time in daycare or whose mothers don’t nurse in public, children whose parents schedule breastfeeding sessions or limit the length, etc. to wean earlier. But children vary drastically. In this country (USA) the most common age for child-led weaning is about 2.5 years old. Although children will frequently wean themselves sooner if mom’s pregnant with another baby.

You might be very surprised, though. My son’s interest in nursing dwindled at around 9-10 months. It increased once he completed mobility milestones, though. That’s normal. I’m practicing “don’t offer don’t refuse” weaning.

As for my comparisons to primates.. What would you prefer I compare us to? I’m not saying “we’re monkeys”. I’m saying that we’ve lost touch with how our bodies are designed to function. I also didn’t say that monkeys breastfeed for 7-8 years. I said that they breastfeed until certain developmental milestones are met. Additionally, everyone in this thread has been babbling about “even animals wean!” Yeah. They do. When certain biological milestones are met. And those milestones are not “when baby gets milk teeth” or “when baby can ask for it”.

Honestly, I find comparisons to other species to be far less offensive than the people that randomly state “We need to wean at x number of months or x number of years or blah blah”. Back it up.

I’m not telling anyone that they have to breastfeed for 6 months, 12 months, three years, four years or even at all. I’m saying that if a woman chooses to breastfeed until her child weans, and if she can point up the many benefits (as I have done), it’s absurd to say that she shouldn’t.

Weaning nazis are just as irritating as boob nazis. :p

LadyinRed October 16, 2008, 11:20 AM

I just wanted to mention that a link to this poll has been posted on a Lactivist board with encouragement for extended breastfeeders to vote, so the results of this poll have been very skewed.

Seriously October 16, 2008, 12:42 PM

Lactation Nazis? Since when did women who breastfeed kill anyone? Hmmm, on the contrary it’s a way to affirm and promote life and healthy living.

There’s no doubt that breastfeeding past 2 or so is a benefit for the child. There is some benefit to mom: a reduced possibility for breast cancer.

But seriously, anyone who thinks that breasts are only about sex needs to expand their minds a fair bit. Are fingers only about sex, because, well they can be used for it.

Krista October 17, 2008, 9:38 AM

Lady in Red are you serious?
The results are skewed because people who don’t have the same view as you are voting???????
In regards to the nursing I am currently nursing my 4 yo DD who attends kindergarten and my 2 yo DS. She certainly does not get teased as no-one outside our family knows she nurses. A child is no more going to announce they nurse than a child in school is going to tell everyone that still take a soother or bottle. There have been many time that I have not wanted to nurse anymore but I am always reminded how important it is. How comforting and beneficial it is when they are sick. How just plain comforting it is when they have a bad dream. What possible reason could I have to take away that means so much to my kids. My DD is very secure in herself and confident she wasn’t the one crying at the gate the first day of kindergarten I barely got a goodbye.

Jennifer October 17, 2008, 1:54 PM

I believe very strongly in child led weening. There has to be a biological reason that milk production does not stop until after nursing stops. Each child has his or her own timeline we need to respect when a child will be born (labor will start) by respecting the natural bond between mother and child. And we need to respect that a child will wean when they are ready. It is NO ONES business except the nursing duos

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