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Breastfeeding: How Old is Too Old?

By John Cave Osborne |

What if one of the children were 6 years old?

Ever since I started writing at Babble, people often ask me if it’s hard to come up with parenting stories on such a regular basis. It’s really not, I tell them. It’s amazing how much content you can quickly find thanks to Google Reader. Sometimes, in fact, I wish I had fewer topics from which to choose. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve posted something, only to stumble upon something else a bit later that I wish I had covered instead.

But every now and then, I’ll run across a topic that instantaneously pops off the monitor. When I do, I know that I’ve found a subject matter that will lead to no such second guessing. And when I saw the following article description: Amanda Breastfeeds her six-year-old in tandem with her newborn—horrifying or a loving bond? I knew I had found just such a topic.

When I clicked on the link and browsed the story over at the Daily Mail, I had a hard time believing what I was looking at. Or what was looking at me. It was the image of a smiling mom, Amanda Hurst, who was happily breastfeeding her newborn alongside her scraggly haired, blue-jean-wearing six-year-old son, Jonathan.

Honestly? I barely made it through the article, so compelled was I to obsessively reexamine the pictures—pictures which instinctively struck me as, well, wrong.

Amanda had breastfed Jonathan until he turned three, at which point she told him he was too old, though she admitted that telling him such was difficult for her. Enter William, her newborn, and suddenly, Jonathan’s interest in breastfeeding was rekindled. ”I know some people think it’s strange,” says the 29-year-old mom. “But I think it’s perfectly natural.”

Unsure of what to make of the story, I immediately bounced it off of my Strollerderby peers. And boy, am I glad I did. Our editor, Margaret, dug up this link from the BBC. It’s to a story they had done on Hurst back in April. Then Paula Bernstein emailed me a link to a piece that Mayim Bialik (of “Blossom” fame) had written earlier today over at Raising Kvell. The post, I Breastfeed My Toddler. Got a Problem With It?, was a very well written, unapologetic account of why she thinks it’s okay to continue to nurse her 2-1/2 year old. (What was it Joey used to say? Whoa!)

The truth is, I do have a problem with Mayim’s breastfeeding a 2-1/2 year old. Though, I must confess, it’s not a very big one, and it’s certainly nowhere near as big as the problem I have with Amanda Hurst, presumably because Bialik’s toddler isn’t a full-blown little boy yet. And while I’m confessing, I may as well own up to something else.

Other than the manner in which the image of Jonathan latched onto his mother’s nipple assaulted my retinas, I’m not exactly sure why I have a problem with a mom breastfeeding her six-year-old. And I grew even more unsure, when, many of the super-smart Strollerderby ladies began to chime in on the topic. I came to realize that, though certainly not mainstream, there are, indeed, many moms who choose to breastfeed their children long past the age I consider “normal.”

I’m usually not one to hold back my opinion. (Shocking. I know.) And, truth be told, the arguments I read which were critical of allowing a child to breastfeed past a certain age made more sense to me than the ones that countered by citing the nutritional benefit of breast milk and the natural bond between mother and child.

But it’s really not my place to argue on one side or the other. Especially since I’m a man. I know what I’m comfortable with. And I know what my wife’s comfortable with, too. And, oddly, I now know what Blossom’s comfortable with. But I don’t know what you’re comfortable with.

What do you think? How old is too old when it comes to breastfeeding? More specifically, is it unnatural, unhealthy even, for Amanda Hurst to breastfeed her six-year-old? What about Mayim Bialik and her 2-1/2-year-old?

picture: flickr.eti

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About John Cave Osborne

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John Cave Osborne

John Cave Osborne is a writer whose work has appeared on such sites as Babble, TLC, YahooShine, and the Huffington Post. John went from carefree bachelor to father of four in just 13 months after marrying a single mom, then quickly conceived triplets. Since then, they have added one more to the mix, a little boy they named Grand Finale. Read bio and latest posts → Read John's latest posts →

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0 thoughts on “Breastfeeding: How Old is Too Old?

  1. AnnieM says:

    I too, thought it was really weird to breastfeed a child past one…until I had a baby. When do you decide what is too old? Twelve months is okay, but twelve months plus 1 day is too old? It’s up to mom and baby. We Americans are so squeamish about seeing breastfeeding toddlers, yet it is common practice all over the world, depending on where you live. I nursed all 3 of my kids past 2..one was 34 months, one 28 months and one 48 months. All grew up socially adjusted, and are now lovely people 24, 21 and 18 years old. The advantages of nursing a toddler aged two are never talked about, but it is HUGE. My husband called nursing “happy juice” when they were that age. It made the terrible two’s terrific. And, yes, they ate just like all other 2 year old..regular food, regular meals, and nursed occ during the day…naptimes, bedtime, and grouchy times..lol. However, once they were past 18 months, they knew that nursing was reserved for at home times. (for my comfort level).

  2. Meagan says:

    It seems like a 6 year old still on the boob is going to have some social issues… I dunno. But a 2 and a half year old? Meh. Isnt the recommendation from the world health organization 2 years, or am I inventing that? Not sure I would want to nurse for 30 months, but I don’t really see the problem.

    1. John Cave Osborne says:

      @Meagan—arguments critical past a certain age suggest that the 6 year old might, indeed, have social issues. They’re also critical of the mother’s motive…you know…the whole controlling, sheltering, never-let-your-kid grow up kinda vibe. But I’m with you on the 2-1/2. Do I think it’s too old? Personally, yes, but only b/c I’ve always been brainwashed by “two.” (And I’m not even sure where I got that number.) That’s why I say, yeah, I do have a problem with it. But not anything like the problem w/ a 6 year old. But, again, that’s me personally.

      @AnnieM—that, my friend, was an awesome comfort. I’m glad you did exactly what worked best for you. and congrats for having successfully raised 3 children!!!

  3. Joy says:

    The WHO does recommend breastfeeding until at least 2 years old. There are so many better things to write about than the less than 1% of children who are breastfeed well into toddlerhood — including how to increase the percentage of exclusively breastfeed infants.

  4. laura says:

    At first when I saw the Blossom thing, I was like, eh, that’s not so bad. UNTIL I READ IT! Is something wrong with her kid??? He wasn’t eating solid food until he was 15 months? and he’s 2 1/2 and still not verbal?? My 15 month old can ask for a “bottle” (milk) and “juice” (even though they both come in a sippy cup..details. Just like not every animal is a “puppy.” whatever). My point is…maybe I’d feel differently about Blossom’s kid if I knew what his deal was (is something wrong with him or does she baby him to the point that he is developmentally delayed). No kid needs to eat in the MOTN past the age of like 9-12months, if that. That is crazy to me. She compares weaning to not pooping in your diaper, but if you keep putting your kid in a diaper for the rest of his life, who knows when he’ll quit pooping in it!? it’s called potty TRAINING for a reason. You take the lead. My daughter has never been much of a boob girl and when I got pregnant and my milk supply plummeted, she could have cared less. So this was never an issue for me. I try to save my parent-judging for things that endager kids. But exclusively breastfeeding beyond 6months…breastmilk might be perfect for a newborn, but after that they’re going to start getting anemia and other vitamin deficiencies if they don’t get other sources of nutrients.

  5. laura says:

    Just to clarify, when I say exclusive breastfeeding past 6 months, I mean not offering complimentary solids, etc. I don’t think extended breastfeeding (even byond 2 years) is a/the problem. Just the way you do it.

  6. Rosana says:

    Although I believe in breastfeeding until 12 months (which is what I do with my kids) I do not understand why a mother needs to explain anything to anybody. Like Mayim wrote, “Ultimately, I get to parent the way I want to, and you get to parent the way you want to.” That is why I think that her piece should have only contained on sentence “I nurse my toddler because I want to.”

  7. Linda, the original one says:

    The bottom line is that is doesn’t really matter what you or anyone else thinks. It’s an issue between mother and child. I nursed my first two children until 2.5ish. I nursed the last child until he was 5.5 years old. Also, when my youngest was first born, the older two became curious about breastfeeding again and wanted to “try it.” I let them (they were 7 & 4 at the time and really, they couldn’t actually do it very well, nor were they so inclined after trying it once.) I totally understand that people find extended breastfeeding odd if they’ve never done it or seen it before. It’s outside the cultural norm IN THIS COUNTRY (not worldwide though). There are known health benefits for both mother and child. We’re mammals. “Wrong” indicates a moral or ethicall issue which just really isn’t applicable here. Something isn’t wrong just because it makes other people uncomfortable.

    1. John Cave Osborne says:

      @Linda, the original one—Wrong was the first word to come to mind, but I agree, it’s not the right one. Which is where I ultimately am with it. As I said in the post, it’s really not my place to argue one way or the other. That’s why I was hoping to hear from people like you. Thanks for chiming in!

  8. justme says:

    I vaguely remember reading about a study that made the news in the past year or so that stated that after a certain age, breastmilk provides no additional benefits to the child. Of course I can’t remember what age they stated in the study, but I’m sure someone with some time on their hands could look it up.

  9. Linda, the original one says:

    Also, that social adjustment argument is just crap on not based on anything but conjecture. My 6 year old is actually pretty advanced socially (it helps to have two older siblings, I think) according to his teachers, and he’s always been very independent. I think people just percieve the notion of extended breastfeeding as odd, then they invent issues in order to justify their own discomfort. All I know is that I’ll never regret the breastfeeding relationships I had with my kids. It’s a lovely bond. Additionally, older children don’t breastfeed like infants. It’s usually only at nap and bedtime or if they get hurt or something ~ the same times that most people, whether breastfeeding or not, snuggle with their children (or at least I HOPE they do!).

  10. Linda, the original one says:

    http://www.kellymom.com/bf/bfextended/ebf-benefits.html

    This is an overview of the benefits of extended breastfeeding if anyone is interested. :)

    1. John Cave Osborne says:

      @Linda—that’s awesome! As is your candor. Thanks for your comments, not to mention the link.

  11. Linda, the original one says:

    *The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that “Breastfeeding should be continued for at least the first year of life and beyond for as long as mutually desired by mother and child… Increased duration of breastfeeding confers significant health and developmental benefits for the child and the mother… 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 American Academy of Family Physicians recommends that breastfeeding continue throughout the first year of life and that “As recommended by the WHO, breastfeeding should ideally continue beyond infancy, but this is not the cultural norm in the United States and requires ongoing support and encouragement. It has been estimated that a natural weaning age for humans is between two and seven years. Family physicians should be knowledgeable regarding the ongoing benefits to the child of extended breastfeeding, including continued immune protection, better social adjustment, and having a sustainable food source in times of emergency. The longer women breastfeed, the greater the decrease in their risk of breast cancer.” 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 2008)

    *A US Surgeon General has stated that it is a lucky baby who continues to nurse until age two. (Novello 1990)

    *The World Health Organization emphasizes the importance of nursing up to two years of age or beyond (WHO 1993, WHO 2002).
    Scientific research by Katherine A. Dettwyler, PhD shows that 2.5 to 7.0 years of nursing is what our children have been designed to expect (Dettwyler 1995).

  12. katie allison granju says:

    I nursed Henry for 3 weeks, Jane for just under 5 years, Elliot for 3 years and Georgia for 3 weeks. – Katie

    1. John Cave Osborne says:

      @KAG—talk about spanning the spectrum! Thanks for the comment, Katie.

  13. Natalie says:

    Several of my friends were nursed until 3 or 5. Unless you ASKED them, you wouldn’t know. They do have strong family bonds, and good family relationships. Both of them were tandem nursed.

    Personally, I nursed my first until 2 1/2… through a pregnancy, tandem nursing for 15 months, and through a hospitalization. His kidney specialist told me that my breastmilk was THE best thing for him as he fought through his illness and as he recovered. Several of his doctors expressed surprise to us that he bounced back as quickly as he did after the severity of his illness. Whether that was my milk or not, the way we could reconnect through nursing after all of the trauma that he underwent, and could not understand, has taught me that even when it’s tough, even when it’s inconvenient, even when others wonder why you’re “still” breastfeeding… it is worth it. It has immeasurable value. We weaned this past fall, not without some regrets.

    I am now hoping to nurse his sister at least as long and tandem again with her. I would, personally, not nurse a 6 year old, but I find all of the strong reactions sad, because I know that someone who thinks breastfeeding a 6 year old is “too old” probably would have the same reaction to a 2 or 3 year old.

  14. Manjari says:

    I think it depends on the child and the mother, since every family is obviously different. I know a woman who remembers breastfeeding until age 6 and sleeping with her mom until age 12, and she has all kinds of issues about it. She actually cried when she told me. Maybe she has a complicated relationship with her mother, or her mother’s motives weren’t the same as another mom’s would be. I’m sure every one of us thinks EB is weird, odd or distasteful after a certain age, it’s just a different age for each of us. How would most people feel about a son or daughter still breastfeeding at 10, 13, 16, or older?

  15. Maman A Droit says:

    I think it’s wrong to post pictures of your 6 year old breastfeeding online. But to let him try it when he’s feeling overshadowed by new baby sibling, like the commenter with a 4 & 7 year old, I don’t think is that bad. I highly doubt he’ll keep breastfeeding long. Probably just wants to know his mom isn’t ditching him for baby, you know? I’m going to try to do baby-led weaning personally, no clue when that will be! (we’ve been nursing 16 months so far!)

  16. LogicalMama says:

    Breastfed my child until he was 3.5. Wouldn’t trade it for anything!

  17. Manjari says:

    Ok, I just clicked on the link and looked at the pictures, and I have to say they just don’t bother me. I was also just thinking that to outsiders, a 6 year old looks so grown up, but to his mom he still looks like her baby.

  18. Pauline says:

    My oldest nursing will be 4 in February. My youngest nursling has entered the weird stage as well, at nearly 2. I obviously have no problem with nursing a toddler or even a preschooler. It really is up to the nursing pair and weather they are comfortable or not. Is it possible for me to end up nursing a 6 year old? Yes. Why? It’s the biological norm. I really don’t care about what society thinks. It won’t hurt my child in any way. We’re both happy, though I do have my days I think the benefits, for my family, outweigh the risk of somebody who I don’t give two rips about being uncomfortable.

  19. Laure68 says:

    I really don’t see a problem with extended breastfeeding. I was curious about Mayim Bialik’s article since I am enjoying watching her in The Big Bang Theory. The thing that got to me was that her child nurses 4-7 times a night, and that she hasn’t slept more than 4 hours in 6 years. I can’t imagine being so sleep deprived for so long, but that is obviously a selfish concern. If she is willing to do that, I don’t know why it is anyone else’s business.

  20. Dispelling Breastfeeding Myths says:

    Hi there.
    I shared this story with my Facebook group earlier on today. Overwhelmingly the response was supportive of the mother, and concern about the judgemental reaction from the vast majority of commenters. If breastfeeding were more ‘normal’ in our society then these stories of longer term feeding would be too. I (personally) never set out to feed a two year old, but it happened and I will allow my daughter to self-wean. She feeds much less these days, but if she’s ill or needs emotional comfort (not often as she’s very confident!), she will nurse and that’s fine with me. It’s important to realise that these mothers are normal people, and their children are normal children.
    Some normal children reach a natural weaning age earlier than others, and many many more are forced to self-wean prematurely – often because their mothers feel the disapproval from society and not because either party in the nursing relationship actually really wants to…
    All children grow-out of breastfeeding as their jaws develop and they can no longer suck. Natural duration breastfeeding will last until somewhere between 2 and 7 years depending on the child. http://www.pregnancy-info.net/when-to-wean.html
    There is mounting evidence to suggest that children with compromised immune systems will support an immature immune system through longer term breastfeeding. The average age worldwide for weaning is actually around 4, and the fact that we’re even discussing this story at all shows just goes to show out-of-touch with the needs of our offspring we have become in the West.
    The only parts of the original story which cause me concern are the tone adopted by the right-wing newspaper which published it, and the hateful comments which inevitably came in afterwards.
    http://www.mythnomore.blogspot.com

  21. Becca says:

    ‘Breastfeeding Older Children’ by Ann Sinnott is a must-read for anyone interesting in learning more about, well, breastfeeding older children! Spells out all the exisitng research into the benefits or otherwise of full-term breastfeeding. And it is quite clear that all claims or complaints about the impact on children are simply myths as there is no evidence of harm on the mental health of children, and in fact psychiatrists find children who are brestfed full-term (e.g. to age of 6 or 7) are rated as very happy and healthy (usually much to the surprise of said psychiatrist who has been schooled in Freud-tainted myths about breastfeeding).

    I breastfeed my 21 month old, and plan to carry on as long as she wants to (on day one, I was just hoping I could get to the 6 month mark). I don’t have any problems seeing mums breastfeeding their children of any age.

  22. Kelly says:

    I seriously doubt that extending nursing causes anyone any harm — mom or child.

    If it works for them, great. I suspect older children still nursing (I am talking 5 or 6, not 2 or 3) need that special connection or time with mom. Perhaps they are not able to find comfort or security through means more typical for that age group. Accordingly, why would we want to deny them that comfort? I suspect the urge to get squeamish over this comes with the sexualization of breastfeeding by those who “just don’t get it.”

    That stated, while I wish my 19 month old was still nursing (he weaned far too early for my liking), I am damn glad my six year old isn’t. ;-)

  23. wohm says:

    I wasn’t aware of Mayim Bialik’s relationship with her son. I have an over 2yo “still” nursing but she nurses 2-3x a day- and doesn’t wake up at night. What is Mayim doing to herself? is what I wonder. On the other hand I can’t put myself in her shoes and for those of you wondering: it’s not the parent who forces the nursing relationship, it’s the parent who allows it to continue because that is what the child wants and needs.

  24. Kat says:

    I have no problem with “extended breastfeeding”. I think it is like any other parenting decision – it is the way you do it and your reasons that matter not the actual decision. If you have unhealthy or negative motives this will translate, if you have good or healthy motives this will also translate through your actions and decisions. This is one of the main pitfalls of parenting – making sure your decisions are always about the child and not about you. Extended breastfeeding has very real and important benefits to the child so it should never be assumed that it is a clingy mother who wants to baby a big child.

    I do have a problem with any parent using any nourishment as a main source or first port of call for comfort however. I think it is dangerous to teach a child that nourishment and comfort are linked. Breastmilk is nourishing and beneficial at ANY age, it is irrational that most of us consider drinking cow’s milk to be beneficial all through our child and adulthood but drinking our own milk, which has many more benefits is weird or disgusting. This is completely irrational and strange. The benefits of breastmilk are greatest for those with delicate immune systems which is not JUST small babies but children until the age of 6 or 7 and adults and children who are ill, but breastmilk is still beneficial and nourishing to anybody who drinks it. Very very important to remember this.

    Kat

  25. Shannon says:

    I have 3 children who all nursed beyond 3 years. My original plan was to give nursing a try, and hope for 6 months. As my children grew, it became clear to me that just as the nutritional composition of breastmilk changed with their changing needs, the purpose breastfeeding served in their lives changed as they developed. My middle child nursed for 5 years and 4 months. The other two weaned before they were that old. They are all pretty typical kids now that they are 14, 12 and 9.

    The thing I find most interesting about this whole conversation is how radically things have changed over the last decade. When my middle child was a baby and I was still nursing my 2 year old in tandem with the baby, I started looking into the implications of my decision. I was trying to figure out if I was going to screw up my son by nursing him with into toddlerhood and while his baby brother was nursing. There was almost NO ONE who thought it was okay. I read the comments above and several of them say that nursing a 2 1/2 year old is okay, but maybe also outside the comfort zone of many. Many say nursing a 6 year old isn’t okay.

    I just want y’all to know that 10 years ago, the conversation here would very likely have been very different. 10 years ago it was unusual to find ANYONE who thought nursing a 2 year old wouldn’t ruin the child for life.

    We’ve come a long, long way. And I’m glad.

    As I found 12 years ago when I started my research, there is no research anywhere that shows problems, psychological or otherwise, with nursing an older child. It just doesn’t exist. All research that has set out to find the screwed up older nurslings ends up finding that kids who nurse through preschool and even beyond are the same as other kids. Some research finds them to be more independent and confident… most finds them indistinguishable from their peers.

    So it may hit your EW button or be more than you’re willing to do personally, but there is no research to show it hurts anyone.

    The Jewish Talmud suggests nursing a child until at least 2 (at least 2 is what the WHO says.. not until 2, but AT LEAST until 2), and then to wean them at 4 unless they have health problems. If they are sickly, it suggests they nurse until 5. I’m not Jewish, but after having weaned three older children, I’ve decided there is a lot of wisdom in that. I don’t think it needs to be a hard and fast rule, but I think it makes a lot of sense based on what I’ve seen personally.

    Also, anyone who says that older children are nursed because their mothers want them to, has clearly not spent time with many nursing children over 3. A day or two with your average nursing 4 or 5 year old would debunk that myth right away.

  26. Steve McPhail says:

    As a VERY strong supporter of extended breastfeeding; I just have to let people know who are so strongly against extended breastfeeding… THERE’S NOTHING WITH ANY CHILD CONTINUING THEIR BONDING/ BREASTFEEDING RELATIONSHIP!! Besides, what business is it of any one else’s as to how long a mother should continue breastfeeding her child? Who cares if the child is beyond his or her second or third birthdays? If any mother wishes to continue their loving-bonding relationship with their child through breastfeeding (regardless of the age) I would just kindly keep my own personal thoughts to myself and not discuss them with the breastfeeding mother. Besides, you may not want to hear what the breastfeeding mother has to say to you!! It’s her child; let her (the mother) and her child decide as to when they’ll finally stop their bonding through breastfeeding! Although I’m no parent, I’m almost 100% sure the mother doesn’t need your 2 cents (comments) as to when she’ll stop breastfeeding her child!!

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