Nursing When They Can Ask For It

“Yeah, I’m fine with breastfeeding, as long as she’s not old enough to ask for it,” said the prospective nanny. I had just explained I would be working from home so I could nurse my baby.

Then, I was at a playgroup, and a mother announced that it was her son’s one-year birthday that day. She added a little wistfully, “so he had his last breastfeed last night.”

Yikes! Happy birthday, poor guy! At that point, my one-year-old was nowhere near weaning, and it was painful to imagine what she’d do if I cut off her “mama milk” supply.

Recently, however, my six-year-old witnessed a 4-year-old nursing and said, “Mommy, she’s too old to nurse. If she nurses now, she’ll still be nursing when she’s six! I did a bit of a double-take. While I did agree with her that it was unusual to see a 4-year-old nursing, I was very interested in the negative judgment implicit in my daughter’s comment. Especially because both my girls nursed well past the ‘asking for it’ phases of their lives — between 2 and 2.5 years each!

Related: Breast is Best (as Long as We Don’t See it!)

Can anyone but a mother and child really determine the right amount of time a child should nurse? While the World Health Organization recommends nursing until at least age 2, and longer if the child and mother benefit, I have the sense that my daughter is not the only one who is quick to judge.

Yet, we don’t see many women breastfeeding in general (less than 14 percent of women in the U.S. exclusively breastfed through just 6 months of age in 2006), so when we see anyone nursing, it surprises us. And the older the child gets, the more unusual it is, and the more weird.

In my experience nursing, however, the longer a woman nurses, the more natural it seems to simply lift a shirt and feed a youngster when they need milk or comfort. Yet while many mothers become increasingly accustomed to this behavior, it seems as though society becomes less comfortable.

Extended nursing has been a natural part of child-raising in the past, and is even common in certain other parts of the world. Mothering Magazine published a fascinating article written by a Canadian mother living with her toddler in Mongolia (breastfeeding rate of nearly 60 percent at 6-9 months). She described how she initially differed from her Mongolian peers during playgroups. When an argument broke out and her son was upset, she would try to distract him or talk out the problem. She reported that this approach succeeded in calming him only half the time.

Related: Guilt and Breastfeeding: Who’s Really to Blame?

She compared calming tactics employed by her Mongolian peers: “At the first murmur of discord, [the mother] would lift her shirt and start waving her boobs around enthusiastically, calling out, ‘Come here, baby, look what mama’s got for you!’ Her son would look up from the toys to the bull’s-eyes of his mother’s breasts and invariably toddle over. Success rate? 100 percent.”

(Read the entire article here.)

While I can hardly picture US mothers turning into groups of enthusiastic boob-wavers (it seems American females have reserved that activity for adult males instead of our babies), I like the idea that there exists a multitude of possible breastfeeding relationships, and we might not be wise to judge which approach is right too quickly.

But I’d love to hear others weigh in – is there some sort of harm caused by extended breastfeeding, or is it just harm caused by not adhering to what’s normal in our society? And if it’s the latter, do those in support of a breastfeeding culture even have a responsibility to suffer through the growing pains of re-initiating breastfeeding into a society that has forgotten how to incorporate it?

Related: Best Baby Bottle and Nipple Choices

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Jo S.6 months ago

Thank you Hilary.

Amandine S.
Past Member 2 years ago


LMj Sunshine

Interesting article, thank you.

LMj Sunshine

Interesting article, thank you.

Joe R.
Joe R.3 years ago

An interesting thought.

Danuta Watola
Danuta Watola3 years ago

Thanks for the info.

Romana G.
Romana G.3 years ago

Not sure what normal is but I breastfed my two youngest ones well past one year and even 2 years (2.5 to be exact) and they are both now in school eager to learn and their skills are well above their grade level (fe. Reading on 5.4 grade level in 2nd grade and 2.8 in Kindergarten). My daughter who is now 16 and was also breastfed baby is in gifted education program, gold honor roll student and has received 2 presidential awards for academics along with her first Academic Letter for first year of HS. Needles to say that I don't think extended breast feeding harmed either one of them and I have learned how to fight my battles at that time. It's amazing how numb is our society to drugs, violence, explicit music, pornography etc. but issue of breast feeding keeps discussion threads going for years!

K s Goh
KS Goh4 years ago

Thanks for the article.

Prim Prior
Colin K.4 years ago

BRAVO! Raya!!

Sadly the 'divided you fall' of which you speak, is the cornerstone to our medical model of birth. Once the Mother/Baby dyad is put asunder from unnecessary interventions, c-sections along with iatrogenic and nosocomial ailments, damage and disorders, it takes a saint to breastfeed without pain and problems. Then out come the FREE samples of mind minimizers aka infant formula. Mark up one more for a lifetime of health issues to make a profitable pension plan for medical professionals.

The good news is that the more milk of human kindness and the closeness and skin to skin contact which comes with it …the more oxytocin courses through the veins of both Mom and Baby–the better...and the other good news is that a breastfed baby beats our North American norms of development and all sooner...and I might add delicately: they smell so much more sweetly...speaking earlier... so they can ask for what they much better than sad colicky cries of babies in pain... left alone to suck on stuff that can be made from all manner of things and corruptions...(Nestlé alone has had a number of containers...and in China.. with ground melamine—thats what your cupboard doors are made of...and worse.)…not to mention the phalates in their bottles and nipples!

There hasn't been a recall to date on any of the elixir of life.

Oh!... and the benefits are many... and many are not ever lis

Raya B.
Raya B.4 years ago

Dr. Sears says "Breastmilk's influence on health is probably more far-reaching than researchers have even dared to imagine."

Why would we cease to supply our children, whose systems are still developing such an elixir of life? "This living biological fluid carries substances that are critical to the optimal development of many systems in the body."

The perverse and outmoded belief structures serve only to keep us in the dark ages and hinder the health and development of a generation to come. People who are offended and disgusted by something as beautiful and sacred as a mother feeding her child are displaying symptoms of classic projection, it is really themselves who they are disgusted by. This behavior is constantly encouraged by the barrage of both subliminal and obvious marketing strategies that assault our sensory perceptions on a daily basis. Consumerism feeds off of this by selling products and cosmetics to mask our humanity, to keep us isolated from nature and from each other. Divided we fall. The status quo fails to serve us as a species. Let us collapse and then restructure for a dawn of a new humanity.