Why Would You Breastfeed a Child Who’s Old Enough to Ask for It?

Twelve years ago, when our first kid was a toddler, we had a childless couple over for dinner. We were chatting in the living room when our adorable almost-3-year-old walked up, leaned her elbow on the arm of my chair, and dropped a verbal bomb. Just two little words (well, three, technically), and she said them so nonchalantly—as if she were casually offering me a cookie—that I almost spat my water across the room.

Wanna nurse?”

I watched our friends’ jaws hit the floor, then I broke the shocked silence with my own laughter. “No, thanks,” I said. “Maybe later.” Thankfully, our cherub was content with that response and skipped off happily. “Did she just say what I think she said?” our friend asked.

Yep, she did.

All three of our kids nursed until shortly after age 3. It was unusual for our daughter to have asked at that time—we’d pretty much cut out nursing other than at bedtime and first thing in the morning by that point. But we were still working on weaning, and what our friends witnessed was part of that process. Thankfully, they laughed along with me, but I’m sure that hearing a walking, talking child ask to nurse is quite a reality to take in if it’s not something you’re used to.

Since lots of opinions (and judgments) get tossed around anytime this topic comes up, first let me tell you ten reasons we didn’t nurse through toddlerhood:

1) To make people uncomfortable.

2) To make a statement and/or prove a point.

3) I’m perversely attached to breastfeeding—or just a pervert in general.

4) I’m insecure and looking for attention.

5) I need my children to need me.

6) I think I’m a superior mother.

7) I don’t know how to say “no.”

8) I don’t want my children to grow up.

9) I’m too lazy to feed them real food.

10) I want a trophy.

Those are some of the most common motivations I’ve seen attributed to moms who breastfeed their kids longer than whoever-is-commenting finds acceptable, but none of them are true for me. (Well, #8 is true, but that has nothing to do with breastfeeding.)

Here are ten real reasons we nursed through toddlerhood:

1) Comfort. Nursing was our toddlers’ primary source of comfort, as it had been since birth. Some toddlers have pacifiers, some have blankies, some have nursing. I loved that there was nothing nursing couldn’t fix. We didn’t have “terrible twos” with any of our kids, and I attribute a lot of that to the fact that they hadn’t fully weaned yet. Toddlers need comfort and connection as they explore their burgeoning independence. Obviously, there are ways to comfort and connect besides nursing, but it worked well for us. I was thankful for that easy, familiar source of comfort for them.

2) Nutrition. Breastmilk doesn’t suddenly lose its nutritional value. In fact, it doesn’t even gradually lose its nutritional value. CIearly, as kids grow, they need more than just milk, but it remains a healthy source of protein, fats, and vitamins as long as they continue. There’s no reason to switch to cow’s milk at one year of age, if both baby and mom are cool with continuing to breastfeed. When you think about it, cow’s milk is the breastmilk of a cow—it doesn’t really make sense that it would be preferable nutritionally to human breastmilk. That doesn’t mean that children should continue to breastfeed forever, but it does mean that there’s no reason to cut them off at some arbitrary number of months or years.

3) Money. Breastmilk costs exactly nothing. I didn’t see a reason to spend money on cow’s milk or some other milk alternative when nutritional milk was readily available at all times for free.

4) Convenience. If your nursing toddler asks for milk, you don’t even have to get off the couch. (Maybe there is something to that “lazy” thing after all.) 🙂 Seriously, though, it’s like carrying a cooler of sippy cups around with you at all times. So convenient.

5) Research. My mom is a lactation consultant. I grew up immersed in the benefits of breastfeeding. Even so, I read a lot when I had my first baby. There is a lot of research that supports extended breastfeeding, and zero research showing that it does any harm. Anthropologist Kathy Dettwyler estimates that, based on comparable mammalian weaning factors, the natural weaning age for humans is between 2.5 and 7 years. You can read the synopsis of her research here. It’s short, and quite fascinating.

6) Respect. Our kids were pretty keen on continuing to breastfeed past age one. At some point in the second year, I started to feel less keen on it myself, but it didn’t feel right to just cut them off cold turkey. Nursing was a pretty big deal for them, and I respected that. Those second two years were really a long, slow, weaning process. There wasn’t a lot of trauma, other than some occasions when I said “no” and they were looking for a “yes.” Some simple distraction or “not now, later” usually did the trick. We stopped nursing in public. Then we only nursed at certain times. Then we cut those times off one by one. It wasn’t necessarily easy all the time, but neither is parenting. I felt like letting them wean at (mostly) their own pace honored our nursing relationship and their attachment to it.

7) Calm. Toddlers can be like little Tasmanian devils, tearing through the world in a crazed whirlwind of exploding vocabulary, physical skill, and will power. Nursing provided an oasis of calm several times a day that I’m not sure we’d have been able to achieve otherwise. I think that also might have contributed to our lack of tantrums. Not that there were never any fits, but for two-year-olds, they were quite few and far between.

8) Body image. This barely counts as a reason, because it’s mostly vanity and 100% selfish, but I’m including it anyway. I know not every woman loses weight with breastfeeding, but I did. The baby weight melted right off and stayed off. Also, I’m barely an A-cup normally, but while I was nursing I got to be a solid B. So nursing was great for my physique. That wasn’t actually a reason we continued to breastfeed, but it was a nice fringe benefit. Burning those extra several hundred calories a day was pretty sweet.

9) Experience. I was breastfed until I was 2 1/2. My husband was around 4 when he stopped. And we’re both pretty normal people, without any weird mommy obsessions or boob fetishes. I’ve also known a lot of kids who nursed well into toddlerhood, and none of them turned out to be serial killers. So I didn’t have the squeamishness or fears some people get when they think about a toddler nursing. It seemed totally normal to me.

10) Confidence. Even with all of these reasons for nursing into toddlerhood, I’m aware that a lot of people still think it’s weird. The reasons against continuing to breastfeed past a year usually have something to do with sexualization of breastfeeding, discomfort with a kid who can talk asking for milk from a breast (even though that’s what they’ve always done, just without the vocabulary), concerns about what other people might think, or some combination of “ew” and “ick” factors that are usually a result of lack of exposure/experience. I was confident in knowing that there wasn’t anything bizarre about it because I’d seen and known lots of moms who nursed toddlers. I was confident in knowing that there weren’t any ill effects from nursing into toddlerhood because I’d done it myself. I was surrounded by supportive people, which helped, too.

If you met my children, you’d never know they nursed until they were 3. They don’t remember it, and don’t think anything of it. Some kids who nurse until 3 or 4 do remember it, and that’s okay, too. Our societal discomfort over “extended” breastfeeding is entirely cultural, and no argument that I’ve seen against it really holds any legitimate weight.

I do totally understand people not wanting to nurse that long, and I wouldn’t ever tell a mom (or even think) that she should breastfeed as long as we did. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends at least one year. The World Health Organization recommends two years, and then however long mom and baby mutually want to continue.

But those are guidelines, not rules. Some women are unable to breastfeed, and that’s okay. Some women have their own private reasons for not breastfeeding, and that’s okay. Some women breastfeed for less than the recommended length of time for numerous reasons, and that’s okay.

It’s also okay to nurse a child who can ask to nurse. It’s okay to breastfeed a child who can eat real food. It’s okay to take weaning really, really slowly if that’s what works best for you and your baby.

Motherhood is hard enough without putting pressure on ourselves or judging one another’s choices. I hope that explaining my reasons for nursing longer than most makes that choice more understandable for people who might find it odd. Feel free to ask if there’s anything further you want to know. I’m happy to answer questions, trophy or no trophy. 🙂

More posts on breastfeeding from Motherhood and More:

What’s So Hard about Covering up to Breastfeed in Public?

Is it Immodest to Breastfeed in Public?

Digital Lynchings, Feminist Tyranny, and Other Travesties of Breastfeeding in Public

So Long, Breastfeeding

 

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Annie writes about life, motherhood, world issues, beautiful places, and anything else that tickles her brain. On good days, she enjoys juggling life with her husband and homeschooling her children. On bad days, she binges on chocolate chips and dreams of traveling the world alone.

Comments 52

  1. Anonymous

    I have always felt that with the gradual prescence of teeth, weaning should begin. My reason for this is that the child is far less traumatized when they’re younger. They suffer less. I weaned my children at 1 year exactly. They only whined literally around a day or two and not very much. It was over. No crying and fit-pitching. I see people try to wean children from bottles/pacifiers/breasts later than that, and they have a horrible time. The child is older and knows more. They beg in word and action stronger when they’re older. A family member allowed her son to keep a pacifier till he was 3, and it rotted his teeth. He had to be put to sleep for dental work. I didn’t have the terrible twos either. I began disciplining my two when their little hands touched something they shouldn’t. I didn’t hurt them; I used stern words (and a tap on the hand if neccessary if they were pulling at something they shouldn’t, and when telling them “no,no” didn’t work). This is just my experience and observation. To each her own. I wish we had more literature (the Bible specifically) on how long women nursed in primitive times. I can’t imagine them having time to do it with 8-12 children and all of the chores they had to do just to feed their families. Lastly, I really feel that nursing is a private thing between mother and child. I wish women would do it in private or at least cover themselves when in public. Modesty is the reason I feel this way.

  2. Valerie

    I’m happy I read this. I constantly have people who tell me to stop nursing my son (who turned 1 October 20th 2014) because he’s too old, because he’s only going to want to date with women with large breast, or because it’s just “weird”. I as a mother don’t feel he’s ready to stop yes he’s growing teeth and occasionally bites me but I love our bond and reading this just made me that much more confident in my decision to keep nursing.

  3. Elizabeth

    I love this article. I am saddened tho because my husband wants me to start weaning when our son is a year old next month, and our pediatrician says the nutritional value drops drastically after a year, strengthening my husband’s stance on the subject. I don’t know if I’m ready for it, let alone our son. The only reason I want to stop is because of the teeth! Otherwise I don’t mind nursing. I’m not sure what to do, and I’m really bummed about this whole thing. What advice do you have, if any?

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      Annie Reneau

      Hi Elizabeth,

      Well, first I think I’d suggest he research it a bit. I’ve not found anything to back up what your pediatrician says. Perhaps what he/she means is that the baby’s need for breastfeeding for nutrition alone decreases after a year, which is true—other food starts making up more of the baby’s diet after a year. But the milk itself doesn’t suddenly turn to water. They still get valuable nutrients, fat, and protein from breastmilk after a year, as well as the continued immunological benefits. Here’s a link with helpful research excerpts about the benefits of breastfeeding past a year, which might be a good place to start: http://kellymom.com/ages/older-infant/ebf-benefits/

      The other things you might talk with your husband about is why he wants you to wean and what weaning actually means. I always just thought of weaning as a long, slow process. I would actually say that we DID start the weaning process at a year. Giving other food more frequently is part of the weaning process. Lengthening time between nursing sessions is part of the weaning process. Distracting them from nursing with something else to stretch out time between nursing is part of the process. We just went through those stages really slowly. And sometimes it was a two steps forward, one step back process. For example, when they went through growth spurts, or bouts of teething, or illness, they’d nurse more frequently again. But by the time our kids were officially fully weaned, they were only nursing first thing in the morning, right after they woke up, and not even every day. It’s not like they continued to nurse as much as they did when they were one, and then got cut off at age three.

      Regarding the teeth, I think that actually becomes less of an issue as they get more teeth. The worst teeth issues with nursing happen when those first batch of teeth come in (for us that was the 8-12 month range) and they’re prone to chomping. All three of mine bit me once—I yelped, pulled them into me firmly (pulling them off is a painful mistake), and said, “NO BITE.” I think a couple of times, they started to chomp and then stopped looked up at me and I shook my head and said, “NO BITE” again. They get it. People sometimes ask about how you nurse a child with a mouthful of teeth, but if you put your thumb in your mouth and suck without biting down, you can see how it’s not an issue.

      Hope that helps some!

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      Annie Reneau

      “In the policy statement, ‘Breastfeeding and the Use of Human Milk,’ published in the March 2012 issue of Pediatrics (published online Feb. 27), the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) reaffirms its recommendation of exclusive breastfeeding for about the first six months of a baby’s life, followed by breastfeeding in combination with the introduction of complementary foods until at least 12 months of age, and continuation of breastfeeding for as long as mutually desired by mother and baby.’ http://www.aap.org/en-us/about-the-aap/aap-press-room/Pages/AAP-Reaffirms-Breastfeeding-Guidelines.aspx#sthash.EYAuTVAr.dpuf

  4. Anonymous

    “The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends at least one year. The World Health Organization recommends two years, and then however long mom and baby mutually want to continue.”

    No, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends at least 7 months, and the WHO recommends 1 year. Please fact check this. Other than that, great blog.

    1. Dima

      Sorry, M’Dear, but it is you, not Annie, who is mistaken.

      This was taken straight from the WHO’s website:
      “Exclusive breastfeeding is recommended up to 6 months of age, with continued breastfeeding along with appropriate complementary foods up to two years of age or beyond.”

      (As a side note, Health Canada’s recommendations mirror those of the WHO.)

      #sorrynotsorry

    2. Post
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      Annie Reneau

      Hmm. I fact checked while writing the article, and the information is correct, though perhaps the terminology is causing confusion? The AAP recommends EXCLUSIVE breastfeeding for 6 months, meaning adding no other foods or liquids, then at least 12 months in combination with other foods, and then as long as mom and baby wish to continue. And I see “Dima” already addressed the WHO recommendations.

  5. Ruth

    Thirty-five years ago when my son was 9 mos old I gave into pressure and quit nursing. He was sad – I was sad. After three days I let him try again thinking there would be no milk and he would give up. Thankfully there was plenty of milk and we were both overjoyed. We continued into his third year when he became just too busy to remember to nurse. Today he is a successful attorney.

  6. Cathiwim

    One of the reasons we are so squeamish in America about breast feeding toddlers is tha mothers and babies have routinely been separated in one manner or another from birth( unless mom birthed at home or a birth center , usually) since the late 1800s/ early 1900’s. Formula/ scientific feeding was seen as more modern and safe, and mothers could get back to social / homemaking responsibilities sooner if they weren’t breast feeding. We have sorely paid the price in this country, and I hope toddler led weaning becomes the norm. We will have a better bonded family unit, and healthier children overall if we do….

  7. Olivia

    Each to their own but I was breastfed until I was 3 and can remember it. My mother hotly denies it so just be prepared for the awkward stories from your child when they are older.

  8. Jen

    Great article! I hope I can nurse for so long and wean so easily. I would like to let my son, now almost one year, wean when he is ready. My daughter weaned at 16 months but I was already pregnant. I kind of wonder what it will be like to nurse an older toddler.

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  9. Lisa

    Ah I needed this tonight. I’m hitting that not so keen point. My son is 14 months and I’m currently 15 weeks pregnant and between teething and pregnancy I’ve been wanting to wean but I know it is his comfort and he can’t understand yet why mommy doesn’t want to nurse.

  10. Toni

    Hi! I am wondering why you stopped nursing in public? And if you can expand on that – did you only nurse at home? Did you nurse in front of family during this time?

    My mum, whilst supportive of my parenting style and choices, just cannot get her head around my wish to continue nursing as long as my daughter wants to. She actually said she thinks it’s disgusting (yes that word) to nurse when a child is old enough to ask. I was quite taken aback and didn’t know how to respond but do want to have the conversation with her. My daughter is 9months so still an acceptable age to be nursing in public but I don’t want to stop nursing in public. I almost feel like I am doing her an injustice by hiding it away – if we want breastfeeding to be the norm then we need to help make it the norm for our daughters.

    1. Judy

      I took a picture of Annie nursing #3 at a Seattle Pier restaurant. It simply looks like she is holding a sleeping toddler at 18 months. I put it in my breastfeeding class to show it can be done.

    2. Annie Reneau

      Hi Toni,

      I guess “stopped nursing in public” makes it sound like we stopped because it was public, but it was more of an easy boundary to set: “We only nurse at home.” When I was ready to start limiting our nursing, that was a good way to start. Only at home, then only at certain times at home, etc. I’d still nurse in front of family if they were around.

  11. Ash

    I love this article. With my first we only made it to three months before I dried up. My daughter (#2) will be a year old in a week and a half and we’re still going. Sure she likes sips of what everyone else is having, my almond milk, a little watered down juice, etc. but she loves her milk. When my husband asked me the other day what I was wanting to do (wean or keep going), I told him I honestly hadn’t given it much thought because things were working out. I don’t know that I’d go past two years for personal reasons but I’m not going to cut her off cold turkey at one. We may take the next year to slowly wean.

  12. Dawn

    My daughter is eight weeks old and she already asks for it in her own way. Num nums are the only thing she cries for, and at
    is just a quick hey sound. I am praying she nurses until she’s three because she and I are at high risk for type two diabetes and the longer we nurse the lower it drops. Dropping weight like crazy is a nice added bonus. 🙂

  13. Amber Wenteler

    Wow!! I feel as if I could have written most of this!! Thank you for sharing! I am a first time mom and still nursing my 2.5 year old daughter 🙂

  14. Jessica

    To anyone who says old enough to ask is too old to nurse, my 11 month old can ask! Granted not quite so eloquently as the little one in the post, but when he crawls up to me crying and says Mama booboob it’s pretty clear what he needs.

  15. Lauren

    Wonderful list 🙂 my son is 14 months & I’m in no hurry to wean him. I’m 19 weeks pregnant & I think my milk is changing, I certainly don’t produce much but my son doesn’t mind! Some days he only nurses in the morning, sometimes he pulls at my shirt & fusses, sometimes he nurses 4 times a day. He’s still my baby & my milk is comfort to him. I’m not stopping until he stops 🙂

  16. JoAnne Applebaugh

    I don’t have kids yet (hopefully someday). I’m not sure how long I’ll breastfeed. I might not even be able to. What I do know, though, is that you guys know what’s right for YOU and YOUR kids — so just do that and you’ll have my full support.

  17. Jade Anna Hughes

    Thanks for this!! I never even thought of a cut-off point to be honest, we are just planning on following my daughter’s cues and when she is ready to wean she will let us know. I have to add, I’m so happy to be breastfeeding as my daughter was really sick last week and all she wanted to do was nurse. At least I knew she was staying hydrated and getting her calories from somewhere! ❤️

  18. Erin Bartley Cummisford

    I’d also add reducing your risk of breast cancer. I nursed both of my kids until 4, and while that didn’t impact out decision, it was a nice benefit for me. Also helped me corral a squirrely toddler when I had a newborn – it was the first thing they did together!!

    1. Thuthi Manohar

      I breastfed exclusively for 6 months and my period started ONE MONTH after my little one was born … so go figure! I still breastfeed her and she is 27 months now … so thanks for this reassuring article!

  19. Anna

    When my second daughter was a toddler, she was nursing and nursing, then stopped, sat up, and said to me, “Mama, the milkies are NOT coming out. I’m going to go and get you a glass of water.” Then she toddled off into the kitchen and did just that. Leaving me to consider whether it might possibly be time to think about weaning a child who could articulate all that. 🙂 But the thing was, she wasn’t quite ready then to wean, and she definitely wouldn’t have been ready any earlier. Weaning would have been a huge, horrible trauma if I’d forced it on her at any point when she was 2. When she stopped at right around three, it wasn’t sad or traumatic or hard– it just faded away as she lost interest. (BTW, I read your post about saying goodbye to breastfeeding right around that time. I think that was my first intro to your blog and it was SO helpful).

    Anyway, big yes to all the reasons you mention for extended nursing. I have one more: I’m currently nursing my third child (age 1), and my midwives told me when he was born that with all the nursing I’d already done with my first two (2 years for child 1, 3 years for child 2), if I nurse him until he’s at least 2, my risk of breast cancer will drop to practically zero. That’s not my primary reason for continuing, but still, it’s a pretty big deal.

    1. Post
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      Annie Reneau

      Ha! Cute story, Anna. Love it!

      I totally forgot about the health benefits to me! Yet I didn’t forget my bigger breasts. Hmm . . . maybe I need a priority check. 🙂

      I also forgot that I didn’t get my period back until my kids were over a year old. I know not all moms get that long, but THAT was AWESOME.

    2. pure craziness

      why would there be any trauma had you stopped at age 2? to prevent trauma do you have kids in school wearing diapers too?

      1. Annie Reneau

        purecraziness,

        I think I understand what Anna was saying. There were certain periods during our nursing relationship when actively trying to wean would have been more traumatic than others. My kids were very attached to nursing at two; much less so as they got closer to three. Just as there are signs that a child is ready to actively potty-train, there are signs that a child is ready to actively wean. I don’t see a need for force or trauma with either undertaking.

  20. Bonny DuPuis

    I felt a lot of pressure to stop earlier than I wanted to, in fact, my OB just sorry of rooms me that is better stop after my son was a year because she was going to put me on a stronger birth control pill. I was to naive to know I could say no. I enjoyed nursing, my kids enjoyed it, and it was the best “go to”for soothing and calming.

  21. Life With Teens and Other Wild Things

    “But those are guidelines, not rules. Some women are unable to breastfeed, and that’s okay. Some women have their own private reasons for not breastfeeding, and that’s okay. Some women breastfeed for less than the recommended length of time for numerous reasons, and that’s okay.”

    THIS is why you’re my favorite. Ever.
    I see SO many moms commenting about how they feel “shamed” by these kinds of articles because they weren’t able to, or chose not to, breast feed. THANK YOU for acknowledging and validating others’ experiences, as well as your own. *high fives* <3

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