On Nursing a Preschooler

When I wrote this post for the Attachment Parenting blog – API Speaks, I was unsure if I wanted to cross-post it on my own blog as well. I think most of my readers know I’m still nursing my almost 4-year-old daughter, and while I’m OK with the fact that I am, it’s not something I try to draw attention to either. I mean, it’s not the most socially acceptable thing to do here in the USA. Anyway, I decided to post it after all. Maybe it will keep another mom nursing a preschooler from feeling like she’s the only one in the world doing it. There have to be others out there, right? It’s just something so few people talk about. But here goes, I am talking about it…

When I was preparing for my daughter Ava’s birth, there were a lot of uncertainties about what motherhood would have in store for me, but there was one thing I knew for certain – I would breastfeed. I didn’t have a time limit set on how long I would breastfeed, I just knew I would do it, as my mom had done with me and my siblings.

My daughter Ava is now just three weeks away from her fourth birthday and she is still nursing. I am sometimes conflicted about how I feel about it. After all, it’s not like I began my nursing journey saying, “I want to nurse my child until she’s at least four. I did, however, believe I wanted my child to wean when she was ready, but I didn’t anticipate how I might feel or what I might do if her idea/time frame of weaning readiness differed from my idea of when I thought she should be ready.

Ava nursed pretty much on demand, or, a phrase I rather prefer, on cue until she was around 2 years old. It was then that I was pregnant with her brother Julian and decided I need to cut back her nursing frequency a bit for my own peace of mind. A few months before Julian’s birth, she was down to nursing once per day (before bed) and that’s pretty much what she’s been doing ever since (for the last year and a half).

A few months ago, I toyed with the idea of weaning her by her fourth birthday, so I threw the suggestion out there to her. At first she seemed amenable to the idea, but has since changed her tune, citing, “But I love mama milk,” which made me smile. And then she also added, “I’m going to nurse until I’m 8!” which made me shift a little uncomfortably in my seat.

I feel like overall (with the exception of a few difficult months during my pregnancy) we’ve had a great nursing relationship and she’s received so many wonderful benefits – great health, emotional security, bonding with her brother at the breast, etc. – over the past four years. I know it would be bittersweet if she weaned now, but I would feel very good about what I’ve been able to give her, as well as what she’s been able to give me. However, I don’t think she’s ready yet and, as much as I’d like to just be nursing one child again, I don’t think I am going to insist that she wean. I may still make suggestions and talk up the very rare occasions that she goes to sleep without having “na-na” by telling her how proud I am and what a big girl she is, but, for now, I think that’s as far as I’m going to take it. When all is said and done, I really do want her to be able to decide when she is done.

Ava, almost 4 yrs oldI didn’t set out to nurse a preschooler, but somehow along the way, my sweet little baby grew from an infant to a toddler and eventually blossomed into a preschooler in what now seems like the blink of an eye. I am confident this won’t go on forever and when I look back on this time when she’s 10 or 20 or 30, and I look at the young woman she’s become, I am hopeful that I will feel good about the choices I made and have no regrets.

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72 thoughts on “On Nursing a Preschooler

  1. I’m so proud to have such an honest, brave sister who is also a great writer! I was kind of wondering about this aspect of your motherhood and reading all the lovely comments plus your article has once again confirmed for me that there is no “normal” and anyone who insists that “normal” exists is likely missing out on the beauty of an authentic life, consciously lived.

  2. You’re out of the closet. LOL!

    My boys both weaned themselves at 4 1/2, but my daughter was 5 before she was done. Who knows how long this youngest will go :)

    So did you delete all the mean comments? Cause I know you got some. ;)

  3. Thank you. I recently tried to wean my son and he wouldn’t have it. I think it was pretty traumatic for the both of us. I have put up a few boundaries for myself and it works. He’s 19.5 months old and I don’t know how much longer he’ll nurse and I’m becoming ok with the idea of nursing my son when he’s 2. We’ll see.

  4. I’m so glad you posted your story. My little girl–also an Ava!–turned four yesterday, and as I put her to bed the night before, I thought back on our nursing relationship, which ended when she was two and a half.

    For us, it was a series of decisions to keep going, for different reasons. While I was pregnant with her, I thought we’d nurse maybe eight or nine months. Then when she neared that age, I realized, hey, this is easy! And free! And I had already decided I never wanted to purchase formula.

    Once she turned one–walking, then running, and never, ever stopping moving–the benefits for both of us changed. I started to really feel that amazing let-down reflex for the first time (late, I know!), and that infusion of stress-relief and relaxation made me a much better mom. I was exhausted and frustrated with her extreme energy levels; nursing mellowed me out and made me fall in love over and over. Not that I wasn’t in love, but–you know? It was a tough year.

    Then came a yucky winter when every kid we knew had an awful two-week bout with rotovirus. Three of her close friends were hospitalized for hydration and observation. My girl stayed well–and I knew that if she did get sick, I’d have the perfect food for her. She has never had an ear infection or remotely serious illness, thanks to some mix of good luck and good nutrition. I’d like to think the breastmilk played a part.

    Eventually, sometime around her second birthday, we cut back to nursing only first thing in the morning. She’d quit napping before age two and still could not sleep through the night. She’d awaken with a flourish and keep up the unbelievable energy level ALL. DAY. LONG. My husband and I were exhausted. So for our morning nursings we’d let her get in bed with us (rule: the sun had to be up) and nurse for fifteen minutes. It was our calmest, sweetest time of the day, and we all loved it.

    That next Thanksgiving, when she was turning two and a half, my parents visited for four days. Ava got up each of those mornings and went first to find her Nana and Granddaddy, instead of getting in bed with us. I realized this was it. About a week later, she remembered–hey, I’ve been forgetting to go to mom!–but I gently told her we were stopping. It made me very sad, but we had a great run. She protested a bit and moved on.

    Now we’ve got a new baby coming in a few weeks. It will be interesting to see what this new child will want and need….

    Sorry for the book, but your great post got me reminiscing!

    - L

  5. I’m so glad you posted your story. My little girl–also an Ava!–turned four yesterday, and as I put her to bed the night before, I thought back on our nursing relationship, which ended when she was two and a half.

    For us, it was a series of decisions to keep going, for different reasons. While I was pregnant with her, I thought we’d nurse maybe eight or nine months. Then when she neared that age, I realized, hey, this is easy! And free! And I had already decided I never wanted to purchase formula.

    Once she turned one–walking, then running, and never, ever stopping moving–the benefits for both of us changed. I started to really feel that amazing let-down reflex for the first time (late, I know!), and that infusion of stress-relief and relaxation made me a much better mom. I was exhausted and frustrated with her extreme energy levels; nursing mellowed me out and made me fall in love over and over. Not that I wasn’t in love, but–you know? It was a tough year.

    Then came a yucky winter when every kid we knew had an awful two-week bout with rotovirus. Three of her close friends were hospitalized for hydration and observation. My girl stayed well–and I knew that if she did get sick, I’d have the perfect food for her. She has never had an ear infection or remotely serious illness, thanks to some mix of good luck and good nutrition. I’d like to think the breastmilk played a part.

    Eventually, sometime around her second birthday, we cut back to nursing only first thing in the morning. She’d quit napping before age two and still could not sleep through the night. She’d awaken with a flourish and keep up the unbelievable energy level ALL. DAY. LONG. My husband and I were exhausted. So for our morning nursings we’d let her get in bed with us (rule: the sun had to be up) and nurse for fifteen minutes. It was our calmest, sweetest time of the day, and we all loved it.

    That next Thanksgiving, when she was turning two and a half, my parents visited for four days. Ava got up each of those mornings and went first to find her Nana and Granddaddy, instead of getting in bed with us. I realized this was it. About a week later, she remembered–hey, I’ve been forgetting to go to mom!–but I gently told her we were stopping. It made me very sad, but we had a great run. She protested a bit and moved on.

    Now we’ve got a new baby coming in a few weeks. It will be interesting to see what this new child will want and need….

    Sorry for the book, but your great post got me reminiscing!

    - L

  6. My 1 year old daughter has food allergies. Both our lactation consultant and the pediatric allergist have said that the longer I nurse her, the more likely it is that she’ll outgrow her allergies. Breastmilk is like a soothing balm to her intestines, which were under attack for months as we tried to figure out what was “wrong” with her. Not only do I nurse her a couple of times a day (other than that she will not sit still long enough)I also pump so that she can have as much breastmilk as possible. Pumping gets in the way some times, sure, but breast milk is such a wonderful substance… the best medicine money can’t buy! So I’ll continue to breastfeed until my girl outgrows her allergies or she decides she no longer wants to.

  7. Sometimes I think, “WOW – how does she do it?” Sometimes I wish I hadn’t been so “pushy” to help dd wean, but she didn’t protest, so that’s why I think she was ready. But most of the time I’m glad that I’m only nursing one again.

    You can really be proud of yourself, Amy! It is so difficult to keep going – difficult to continue to give so much of yourself. And BOY! isn’t it difficult to keep nursing two! That was so challenging for me, so you have all my admiration :)

  8. I think it is important for those who think breast feeding a preschooler is *bad* that in many, many parts of the world this is quite normal. Only with the invasion of TVs and computers (whereby the views of more advanced countries are shown) have many moms stopped breastfeeding after about 1 year….they seem to think that the entire world is like that….

    My mother was a midwife before she married my father and she very, very strongly rec. breast feeding until the child was ready to wean on his/her own….and this was back in the 50′s!

  9. I’m still nursing my son, but he’s only 17 months. When I started, I wanted to make 6 months. That was my goal. I got to six and there was no way I was going to stop. I adjusted my goal to 1 year. As 1 year was nearing, I cried even thinking about weaning, so we continue on. Some days are harder than others, but each time he cuts out a session, I feel a little sad! He still nurses for naps, bedtime and whenever he asks in the evening/night, but he asks less and less. Thanks for reminding me that continuing to nurse is more normal than it seems. :)

  10. My 2 year old shows no sign of weaning. In fact he is drinking so much I’ve been losing a lot of weight. Hence the late night snacks and indiscriminate consumption of buttered toast at 1am. Or else I wake up with gastric.

    Still, I am so happy to have found your post. It is very encouraging and I am glad I’m not the only mom nursing her child past 2 (especially amid a ton of criticism here)!

    We’re taking each day as it comes and I’ll nurse for as long as he is happy to have mama’s milk. Just tonight he made a leap for the breast in his sleep.

  11. My son nursed until about a month after his 4th birthday. He had slowly dropped off, just like Ava, and by the time he was 4, it was down to about every other night. Then, it quickly went to every few days, then, it had been several days, and I asked him if he thought he’d ever nurse again. He thought for a minute, then he looked at me and said, “..Nah.” And that was that! It was kidn of bittersweet. I wish I’d known that the last time he nursed was the LAST TIME!!

    He remembers nursing, and I’m hoping that will help him when he becomes a dad someday. Maybe he’ll encourage his wife to breastfeed. :)

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  13. I’m as delighted to read your post “On nursing a preschooler” as I am the numerous supportive messages from your readers. This is just one more convincing signal that the breastfeeding counterrevolution is truly under way. My best wishes to you all. And for one more example of why you are not alone, you will surely be interested in hearing about the research of Karleen Gribble in Australia:

    http://www.scienceblog.com/cms/node/8587

  14. Thank you for your post. I am still nusing my almost 4 yr old daughter about once a day. I didn’t think we would nurse so long but she doesn’t seem to want to stop just yet and I really don’t want to either. I will truely miss our special time together. I have three girls and have nursed them all. My first until age 2, my second until she was 2 1/2. This will probably be my last so I think that is one of the reasons I will be so sad. Also, A little over a year ago my children all got whooping cough and because my little one was still nusing I believe that is why she was affected the least. Thank you for sharing. Peace

  15. wow, this is very nice to read. i came online searching for… i’m not quite sure. my daughter will turn 4 in exactly 2 months. we still nurse, i was very adamant about letting her self wean. i had a baby about 5 months ago, and i was in heaven thinking about nursing the two of them. then, it happened, i joyously went to nurse the two of my loves and, i hated it. i don’t know if it was the feeling of the different suckling sensations or what. all i know is that i would cringe, tense up, it was pretty severe. i would just cry and to boot, because of the new baby, my daughter wanted to nurse more than even he did! well, with time and persistence, we worked it out, so nearly 5 months later, she still nurses-alot and i’m ready to throw her a weaning party. i’m a little bummed because i really wanted her to decide for herself but at this point, i just don’t enjoy it. if she would settle for a good before bedtime nurse, i would love it. but for her, it is all or nothing. she just won’t go for a one timer at night thing. and with me always nursing her brother, she’s got constant temptation. so, we have said, you will be 4 and you are a big girl now, and we are having a party. she seems to think this is fine…. we’ll see.

  16. As a very strong supporter of extended breastfeeding; I honestly believe that Ava as a 4 year old is still not too old much less too big to still be breastfeeding; Perhaps maybe this is one of Ava’s ways of bonding with her mother.
    I honestly believe that mothers who continue to breastfeed their children past the infant and toddler stage is so beautiful and touching. I only wish more mothers would decide to continue to breastfeed their older children; there’s nothing absolutely wrong with it. Besides I strongly believe that the greatest way a mother can instantly bond with her child (regardless of the age) is through breastfeeding!!. I also believe that if Ava’s mother wishes to continue breastfeeding that is no one’s business except hers. Besides, she’s only giving Ava the very best and nutritious milk in all the world… Her Breastmilk!!
    Ava, as far as I’m concerned… you can continue breastfeeding for as long as your little heart desires!!

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  20. What is the benefit of breast feeding until that age? I’m an early childhood educator and it seems to me, that there are no real benefits to breast feeding once a child can eat solid foods and drink from a cup. I find a lot of women chose to continue to breast feed to benefit themselves. (child throws fits without it) so, what is the benefit? Bonding? C’mon now people! If you haven’t already “bonded” with your child by the time they’re 3, something’s wrong. Tell me, if it’s soooo beautiful and soooo good for your child, why do most women be more open to talk about it in public? It’s because youre embarrassed and ashamed. Once a child can eat by themselves and drink from a cup, there is NO reason for breast feeding. They are too old to be suckling in a breast. Would you do it in public, for everyone to see? If you answer no, then obviously you’re too embarrassed. It’s time to stop. The only person who benefits are the women who are breast feeding. I’ll probably get some negative feed back from this comment. Lol. So what. Opinions are like assholes. Everyone’s got one and most of the time, they stink!

  21. Thanks for posting! I’m 38 weeks pregnant and have a 39 month old that nurses 0-4 times a day still, depending on anxiety level and other things. My ob gave me lots of criticism, said this will open up “a whole can of worms” but couldn’t name one. It’s not miscarriage. It’s not nutritional problems for me. It won’t harm the baby. No it’s not bad for my now preschooler. But a can of unnamed worms nonetheless. And then my dd’s pediatrician told my husband (who was on the “we should maybe wean she’s so old” side, that only 5 women in his 30 years of practice attempted on doing this. But that it was fantastic for everyone. And then my husband came around! Now, it would be nice to nurse just one, but I think about the blocked ducts to come (they say if you had with one, high chance with the other too) and how only one thing can really fix them quick :-)… And how many times did this come in handy with my older, when there was an illness, or pain…. She tells me every day how much she loves my milk, and also, she has on her own said, that she knows she is not a baby anymore, but that she still wants it and it makes her so very happy. And that she will let her baby sister drink first, always. Most days, she wants 0 or 1, and since they are not the most communicative, if she asks for 3-4, I know, something is up, and I need to dig or think… Thanks for posting, it does make me feel not so alone. I personally don’t know anyone else who does this. My daugher has been sick, including any sort of a discharge out of her nose, less than 10 times in 3 years. 0 ear infections. 0 vomit. She’s constantly around other kids. I blame the milk :-)

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