Breastfeeding until age 3, 4, or 5: more common than you think?

When my daughter was born four and a half years ago, I had no plan for how long I would breastfeed her, I just knew that I would start off breastfeeding and then go with the flow. It so happens that in our case going with the flow meant that one month shy of her fourth birthday she was still nursing (albeit only once a day), and as I would soon discover, we weren’t the only ones on this path.

Photo courtesy Alexander Tundakov

Photo courtesy Alexander Tundakov

I wrote my thoughts about this shortly before her fourth birthday in a post titled On Nursing a Preschooler.

I 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.

When I wrote that post I was feeling rather isolated and wondered if there were others who’d chosen (either deliberately or unintentionally) to take the long-term (a preferred alternative term to “extended”) breastfeeding route. I soon got my answer. I received 62 comments on that post. Amazingly none of them were negative and several came from women saying that they too nursed an older child and many thanked me for talking about it openly.

Lisa from The Joy of Six said, “I’m so glad you posted this. I’ve nursed mine until they stopped which has been anywhere from 14 mo to 4. Thanks for letting all those ‘closet nursing’ mommies know they aren’t alone.”

Melissa at Through My Window said: “The whole time I was nursing both of my girls past the age of 4 I always wished that I could talk about it and that more moms were willing to admit that they were nursing for a long time too. My girls only nursed at nap-time and bedtime as they became older which meant only 1-2 times/day. Of course, they are weaned now, but I have no regrets and I would absolutely nurse future children as long.”

Liesl from Come, Mommy, who was tandem nursing both her 4 1/2 year old and baby at the time, said:

Got a 4.5 year-old-nursling over here! Sometimes it is a lot to nurse two, but on the other hand, it’s one of the few times Liam will settle down for a bit. Then after he nurses, he’ll sit around and chat, and that’s when I often find out the things on his mind. And I think it’s eased his transition to brotherhood as well. Nursing a 4 year old is a very different thing than nursing a baby, and it is most definitely not for everyone, but overall I’m glad I stayed with it.

Nina (no blog listed) said:

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!

Heather at A Mama’s Blog shared with me a story from her former employer:

My old boss told me an interesting story a few years ago. He was in his 60′s at the time, and grew up in the country. He said when he went to school at lunch time the “little” boys about ages 6 and 7 would go home to nurse. There wasn’t a lot of food at that time, and the mothers also used it as a form of birth control.

I thought that was pretty interesting that just in the 1940s, nursing a 6 and 7 year old was perfectly acceptable. Too bad we have come so far in the other direction in the last 60 years.

I also took an informal poll (if you will) on Twitter to see if others are nursing or have nursed children ages 3 and up. I was rather surprised by the number of replies I received.

Tomorrow evening, Jan. 2, barring any late-breaking big news stories, ABC’s 20/20 is set to air an episode featuring segments on long-term (extended) breastfeeding, as well as home birth (both with and without midwives), serial surrogates (women that have numerous babies for other women), “fake babies” (life-like dolls), and orgasmic birth. I believe the title for the show is “Extreme Mothering.” You can see a preview of the breastfeeding segment, which included an interview with the mother of a 6-year-old boy who still nurses, as well as an interview with the boy, on ABC News.

Although I put together a decent little list of mothers and children who are long-term breast-feeders (and that’s without searching on the ‘net for other bloggers or celebrities – yes, there are some), there will, undoubtedly, still be those who think it is weird, gross, damaging, or just plain wrong. If you find yourself in that camp, you might want to consider the following.

  • The American Academy of Pediatrics says, “Pediatricians and parents should be aware that exclusive breastfeeding is sufficient to support optimal growth and development for approximately the first 6 months of life‡ and provides continuing protection against diarrhea and respiratory tract infection. Breastfeeding should be continued for at least the first year of life and beyond for as long as mutually desired by mother and child.” AAP goes on to say, “There is no upper limit to the duration of breastfeeding and no evidence of psychologic or developmental harm from breastfeeding into the third year of life or longer.” (AAP 2005)
  • The World Health Organization recommends “infants should be exclusively breastfed(1) for the first six months of life to achieve optimal growth, development and health(2). Thereafter, to meet their evolving nutritional requirements, infants should receive nutritionally adequate and safe complementary foods while breastfeeding continues for up to two years of age or beyond.
  • The American Academy of Family Physicians recommends that breastfeeding continue throughout the first year of life and that “Breastfeeding beyond the first year offers considerable benefits to both mother and child, and should continue as long as mutually desired.” They also note that “If the child is younger than two years of age, the child is at increased risk of illness if weaned.” (AAFP 2001)
  • Former US Surgeon General Antonio Novello, MD has stated that it is a lucky baby who continues to nurse until age two.
  • When to Stop Breastfeeding Your Child: A Case for Extended Nursing includes the many benefits of extended nursing
  • Additionally, there are more position statements from various organizations linked up on KellyMom

But wait, there’s more. According to Summer Minor in her post Is 4 too old to be breastfed?,”Biologically, 4 years is still in the normal range for humans.”

The book Breastfeeding: Biocultural Perspectives contains a wonderful section called “A Time to Wean: The Hominid Blueprint for a Natural Age of Weaning in Modern Human Populations.” by Katherine A. Dettwyler, Ph.D. Dr. Dettwyler is an award winning anthropologist, professor, and breastfed her daughter until she was 4 years old. In the section Dettwyler compares various primates, including humans, to find what the biological norm would be for humans. She found that the natural age for modern humans based on our size, development, and life span is between 2.5 years and 7 years. A child still nursing at 4 years old is normal, natural, and OK.

If you find yourself long-term nursing your child, there’s a good chance that at some point you will run into criticism from others. La Leche League International has some good advice for handling criticism from family, friends or even complete strangers.

If you’re facing criticism, remember that they may simply be uninformed about the benefits of extended breastfeeding or perhaps they feel guilt about their own parenting choices. Consider responding to unwelcome comments by:

  • Ignoring: walking away or changing the subject.
  • Informing: sharing books, articles, or a medical professional’s thoughts on extended nursing.
  • Using Humor: making a joke about the situation or yourself, not the other person.
  • Acknowledging: recognizing the person’s viewpoint and asking further questions without agreeing or disagreeing
  • Empathizing: being empathetic to demonstrate that you understand the other person’s feeling and meaning (Vakiener 1999).

Dr. William Sears has some advice about handling the criticism as well. Here are some things he suggests you keep in mind:

  • Science is on your side.
  • World opinion is on your side.
  • It’s better for your health.
  • It’s better for your toddler’s behavior.
  • Blame it on your doctor.
  • Let your child silence the critics.

For more information about each of these suggestions, visit Ask Dr. Sears: Extended Breastfeeding — Handling the Criticism.

There’s additional information about Handling Criticism about Breastfeeding at KellyMom.

Speaking of KellyMom, which is a wonderful resource for all things breastfeeding, if you are the mother of a long-term nurser and are looking for support, check out their forums. There’s a forum for nursing children ages 3 and up. There are also forums for the toddler years – ages 12-24 months and ages 24-36 months.

While I decided to focus primarily on older children in this post, many women on Twitter chimed in that they are nursing their kids to age two as well, including: Reiza at Stepping Off the Spaceship, Summer at Wired for Noise, Mom Most Traveled, Annie at PhD in Parenting, Sherri at Recovering Sociopath, and Sara (who was breast-fed herself until age 4 1/2) at Custom-Made Milk, among others.

While I’m sure some of my relatives thought my daughter would nurse “forever,” I can assure you she did not. Her last nursing was on Oct. 3, 2008, at age 4 years, 3 months and 11 days. It was mostly child-led, although I did nudge her a bit at the end. I felt that she was ready, but needed a little extra push (and I knew I was ready). It was bittersweet, but I think it went quite smoothly. I hope to write about the experience one day soon before I forget it. It is yet to be seen what my son will decide to do. As for now, he’s still going strong nursing at 25 months.

It is my hope that as a result of segments like the one on 20/20 and the fact that more women are feeling comfortable speaking out about long-term nursing (as evidenced by all of the comments and Tweets I received), that others will not feel like they need to be “closet nursers” nor feel pressured by family, friends or society in general to wean before they feel it is right for them and their child. Let’s trust our judgment to do what’s right for our child and trust the judgment of other moms to do what’s right for their child too.

Cross-posted on BlogHer. I’d love it if you’d share your comments there too! :)

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169 thoughts on “Breastfeeding until age 3, 4, or 5: more common than you think?

  1. I do not know why it was stated that children get “funny” shaped mouths from all nipples be it breast or bottle. In fact children who breast feed develop strong cheek and jaw muscles which keeps them looking youthful well into middle age and beyond!!

  2. Thank you again for the read, it’s good to hear after all the negatives we hear.

    Just putting my own experience in – my son lost interest in breastfeeding at about 14 months, my daughter still woke for a night feed on occaision till she was a little over 4.

    In response to the question of how long it takes for you to not have milk anymore – I found after my son weaned that I still had some supply right up until my daughter was born 3 years later. It wasn’t a lot or enough to cause discomfort, nor was it enough to actually feed a child but I wondered if it would come back if stimulated by feeding. I honestly didn’t realise it was still there until about a year later. I’ve always been amazed at the mother’s body and her ability to produce food as needed, whether it be a few weeks or a few years – truly incredible design!

  3. I nursed my 1st through a pregnancy with my 2nd& he self weaned almost immediately upon delivery proclaiming he did not like the new milk & asking me sadly several time to turn my momma faucets off. :( He was about 3 1/2 the last attempt he made to nurse, but he hadn’t *really* nursed the previous 6 months…just brief attempts. I am still nursing #2 at 2 1/2 yrs & the now 5 yr old often come s& cuddles us during nursing & it very much still feels like his way of “nursing” still.

    I have a small online network of support sisters – but IRL I know NO ONE that has nursed nearly this long. I never would have imagined *I* would be “that mom” lol. Imagine, before pregnancy, I had never even considered nursing. Just goes to show no one is a lost cause – keep educating mommas – that is what woke me up. I am thankful for the info & support of online lactivists & their education of me. It is why I nursed & then when I nursed for so long too.

    Now I try to go out there & share what I know & offer support & encouragement to other moms. I am not a closet nurser. I am loud & proud. :)

  4. I have a 22month old who is full time nursing every couple hours. I just dont know if this is common. I believe in the natural weaning process, I admit I thought it would have happend already. I guess I just need some support to follow my instincts. My family and some friends are constantley like so when are you giong to stop nursing, or your still nursing. I wonder if I should cancel the family trip camping because is all my family giong to harass me for nursing my 2 year old.It feels right to still be nursing yet I wonder is what I am diong wrong I mean I know its not wrong it is just that I feel like I have to hide my nusing

  5. Clea, I hope you’ll read this comment. It’s totally normal that your son still nurses that much. Some kids are more into solid food at this point, and others aren’t. Your child is “demanding” that much, and so he really wants and needs it. That should come first, not what others are saying. You are doing exactly the right thing.

    Tell them that the World Health organization now recommends AT LEAST 2 years of nursing as the optimal standard, and you are doing the best for your child, and that comes first. Just because they didn’t nurse or didn’t nurse this long doesn’t makes your choice wrong.

    He is getting amazing health benefits from breast milk, plus you get amazing benefits for yourself as well! Why cut that short if you both want to continue?

    http://kellymom.com/ages/older-infant/ebf-benefits/

    http://dagmarbleasdale.com/2009/08/how-to-deal-with-criticism-about-breastfeeding/

    All my best, Dagmar

  6. Attention Breastfeeding Parents!

    A NY Television Production Company is casting siblings who are parents who have differences and are willing to chat about them. They must currently be living in a 60 mile radius of New York City. For example, one episode we’re trying to focus on a homeschooling parent versus their sibling who enrolls their kids in public or private schools. This is paid and will be a TON of fun.

    Contact mykidscasting@gmail.com for more info!

  7. it’s interesting if you and your child wish to continue breast feeding, and after husband to continue to it.

  8. Pingback: How to know when it is time to wean your baby from breastfeeding « My HairStyles How To... Learn How To Do All The Best HairStyles!

  9. hi nice to meet u my name is Stein Sorina Adryana my age is 39 years i have a girl 12 months am married i live in Romania
    I have a one year old girl she sleeps with us in bed and is breastfed but eats baby food and or adults

  10. I was never breast fed. Not once. I was adopted at 3 days old and thus was bottle fed only for as long as was absolutely necessary. My immune system was terrible. I never felt connected to anyone. Truthfully even as a kid I had issues with bonding with my family. I think part of the issue was that I was never breast fed. I was just handed a bottle or a pacifier which was taken away by the time I was 10 months. I wont do that to my kids. They can nurse until THEY are ready to stop… but if they drive themselves over for a snack I think maybe then I will have to say no ;) (lol)

  11. My daughter is 3.5 and I’m waiting on her to self wean. Sometimes I don’t want to nurse and she’s OK with. Sometimes she’s not and I give in. I worry it’s making me age or harming me because my diet is bad and I don’t drink milk. But it gives her good health and it soothes her. It was a little awkward a few months ago, she was hospitalized and I slept next to her and nursed her. Nurses and staff would be in and out so much, I was embarrassed and worried they thought it was wierd. I shouldn’t though. It comforted her during a traumatic experience. Plus she’s very healthy, healthy weight, normal height, very smart, maybe even advanced in some respects. Could be genetics or could could be nursery.

  12. Thank you for sharing this! My son is almost 4 and I have been struggling with his lack of desire to wean. I will not pressure him any further to quit after reading this most enlightening report. I know how calming it is for him. He nurses most every night and most mornings. I have been trying to reason with him about ending the “boobie” but he insists that he loves my milk and he needs it. He literally cries for it and I feel so bad for him I just can’t withhold it. It is something I keep private, as I don’t need the funny looks and rude remarks I’m sure would come my way.

  13. Wow! i’m surprised because me too i was 4 years old my mom still nursing me.. i’d tried to keep this brcause sounds embarrasing!! lol but now i’m happy to share it.

  14. My child is 3 and a 1/2. I still breastfeed him pretty often. I’m 23 and have got so much criticism, and that was a year ago! when people would find out through conversation that I was breast feeding him at 2 and a half they would make very rude and uncomfortable remarks. Some would even demand that I stop. I knew the science and the health benefits behind it. So people could not persuade me to stop. I never even planned on breastfeeding him since society has sexualized breasts so much I felt uncomfortable with the idea of breastfeeding. Which is such a sad thing, because if I felt that way just imagine how many other young women feel the same way! I did a lot of research and aimed for 2-3 years breastfeeding. I strongly believe we will make it to 4 or even 5. Which is ok by me, but sometimes I have my days where I would like my breasts to be left alone. It’s definitely something I am very proud and feel empowered by as a woman and mother. To know my child has the very best I can give him. His muscles, eyes, brain, every part of him is still growing and breast milk still provides amazing pure nutrients for him to grow on. I just wish there was not this stigmatism towards breastfeeding toddlers, and breastfeeding in general.

  15. I realize this is a really old post, but I just wanted to say thanks :) My 25 month old is still happily breastfeeding 3 times a day, and 1-3 times through the night. It’s been a bit difficult because I’m pregnant and my breasts have been very very sensitive, plus I’ve gotten a lot of pressure to wean due to the pregnancy and having a new baby. But in my heart I can tell weaning my daughter would do so much damage, she’s so attached to her “mamamilk” and I truly feel it will help her bond with her baby brother. I can easily see her nursing until 4 years, at least when she needs comfort, and it’s so nice to know I’m not alone in taking the “long way”. I’m excited to tandem nurse, any day now! It may not be easy but it’ll be worth it! She’s extremely healthy and intelligent, I think the benefits are pretty obvious, so I’m happy to go as long as she wants, and as long as my new baby wants.

  16. Pingback: I Never Thought I’d Become THAT Mom :: Breastfeeding a 4-Year-Old | Columbia SC Moms Blog

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