Q: When should I stop breastfeeding?

QUESTION: My son is almost 2 and still breastfeeding on demand during the day and waking once at night for a feed. I am of the opinion that my son will know when he’s ready to let go. But he will be starting kindergarten next year (he’ll be 2 1/2 by that time) and my husband is worried it will be a huge issue if he’s still breastfeeding then. He’s worried that it will be “weird”, that our son looks very “big”, what other kids will say if they find out, and that I’m hindering his development and independence.

ANSWER: The decision about how long to breastfeed is a very personal one. If both mother and baby/toddler are enjoying it there is no need to stop at any particular time, though many toddlers, if the decision is left to them, start to become more interested in other things by the time they are about four years old, though it differs from toddler to toddler. Breast-milk contains the very best nourishment that you can give to your child, not to mention antibodies against infection, and its usefulness goes on way beyond babyhood. So congratulations on breastfeeding your little boy for so long. It’s sadly ironic that moms like you, who are giving the very best nourishment to their babies and toddlers, are made to feel embarrassed or have to feed them when nobody is looking.

One breastfeeding mother told me, “When you are breastfeeding at one year, everybody knows. When you are still breastfeeding at two years, only your close friends and family know. When you are still nursing at three years, only your husband knows, and after that even he doesn’t know.” It’s sad that she couldn’t tell her husband and I do hope that your husband will start to feel more comfortable with with you and your toddler breastfeeding as long as you both wish, as it must be very uncomfortable to have to keep something like that a secret.

The World Health Organisation recommends giving nothing but breast-milk for about the first six months of life, and after that slowly introducing healthy solids, along with continuing breastfeeding up to at least two years of age. Studies, which have been done regarding the usefulness of breast milk up to two years of age, show that your milk continues to change in composition to meet your child’s growing needs as your child grows older.

Anthropologist Katherine Dettwyler has produced a summary of studies comparing various mammals, and looking at the the stage at which they wean their babies. From that she has concluded that the optimal period for nursing a human baby is somewhere between 2 1/2 and 7 years. You can read about it here.

To return to your question — even mothers who have to return to work and put their babies into child-care, often manage to continue to breastfeed successfully. You can feed your toddler before you leave in the morning, and then express breast-milk at work a couple of times during the day, to be given to the child at kindergarten the following day. When you return home in the evenings, you can nurse again, and then if possible, once or twice during the night, to keep your milk supply up as little ones are better at completely emptying your breasts than the very best of breast-pumps.

The following day your expressed breast-milk can be given to the carer at the kindergarten, to be fed to your child in a sippy cup. That way he won’t be teased by the other children as your husband fears, and the carer at the kindergarten can be told that this is very special milk that your child needs for his health — which is absolutely true! And just to reassure your husband, you can tell him that studies have shown that the longer children are breastfed, the healthier they are and the higher their IQ will be.

Written by © 2012

Suggested reading:

  • “Mothering your Nursing Toddler”, by Norma Jane Bumbarner, (La Leche League, USA, 2000)

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