Extended Breastfeeding: Until What Age?

Breastfeeding is the normal, natural, and ideal (and only truly side-effect free) way to nourish babies until the age of one year.  It is also an ideal nutritional supplement that mothers should strive to give their babies until those babies turn two (and I admit, at this I flunked, breastfeeding advocate as I may be; I nursed Shlomo until he was 14 months, at which time I let him quit).

But until what age is breastfeeding normal and acceptable?

Yitzchak’s older brother, Be’eri, nursed until his third birthday.  A few weeks before his birthday, his mother started saying, “Be’eri, soon it’s your birthday.  You’re going to be three years old.  Three years old is a big boy, and big boys don’t nurse.”  She said this over and over again, and on the morning of Be’eri’s birthday, he came over and asked to nurse.  Mom said, “Be’eri, today is your birthday!  You’re three years old!  Three years old is a big boy – ” and Be’eri finished, “and big boys don’t nurse,” with a sad face.  He turned around and walked away . . . and never asked again.

When I was born, I didn’t immediately gain weight at the pace the doctor thought was necessary.  Because my mother was an ignorant, first-time mother who had her kids before the Internet Age, she didn’t have access to the wealth of information that first-time mothers often have access to today.  When I didn’t gain weight, they told her to add formula, and she did.  Thereafter, I apparently decided that nursing was too hard (typical, by the way, for formula-supplemented babies) and it slowly tapered off.  I nursed either three months, six weeks, or six months – apparently, memories aren’t exact. FTR: I don’t blame my mother for this, although I am kind of peeved that I missed out on something so important because of a lack of information and/or misinformation.

But Esther, the sister immediately after me, didn’t gain weight, either.  Except that the doctor looked at the chart, looked at my mother, and said, “Your first was this way, too, right?  Go ahead and keep nursing.”  And she did.  (You’re welcome, Esther.  I missed out, and you gained from it.  In many more ways than just this one.  But that’s the price every firstborn pays, isn’t it?) Esther nursed the longest of all of us – two and a half years.

Shira, too, nursed a long time.  She liked nursing and would ask to “nack-n-nurse” – a word derived from my mother’s question, “Do you want a snack (in which case, you can have one, but not me) or do you want to nurse (i.e., really nurse, not two minutes and that’s it)?”  I think Shira nursed until she was two and a quarter.  I don’t remember until what age Noach and Ari nursed, but I’m pretty sure at some point Noach was supplemented with formula (we bought formula and new bottles for Pesach), though I’m not sure why.

In other words, both Yitzchak and I grew up with extended nursing as a normal, natural part of life.  One you talked about anecdotally, but didn’t see as out of the ordinary or something to think about.

When I saw a mother nursing a two+ year old on the light rail train a few years ago, I was impressed.  She told me, slightly embarrassed, that this is the only way she can calm him down, and that she often hears that he’s too old.  I told her, honestly, that I was very impressed, and admired her.  I told her that the longer they nurse, the better off they are, and that she’s really good for keeping it up despite what people say.  I also told her that I was also getting comments about how long I nursed my baby (Shlomo, who was betwen six months and 14 months at the time), and that I thought people were just jealous.  She laughed and said that was probably true.

So far, so good.

Nursing till two is ideal according to WHO; nursing till three or five has a lot of benefits.  But where do we draw the line?  Every once in a while, there’s a story about a mother who is nursing a five year old, six year old, or eight year old.  I would assume that no one is nursing a high school or college student, and no one is still nursing her engaged or married son or daughter.  Definitely, no one who is pregnant themselves is still nursing from their own mother – I think.

Again, where is the line?  If nursing a two year old is ideal, and nursing a three year old is beneficial, why is nursing a four, five, or six year old problematic?  See, in my mind, a four year old nursling is kind of odd, but totally a good thing; a five year old nursling is weird, and a six year old is just . . . huh?!?!  What happened there?

But those ages are random, aren’t they?  And what about the mother who nursed her six year old, and later realized that the six year old’s autism had been immeasurably helped by the fact that she had nursed so long?  Why is 4 years, 364 days, acceptable – but 5 years, 0 days, is not acceptable?

In other words, where do we draw the line?  And why do we choose to make that age the maximum limit for the duration of normal breastfeeding?

And, perhaps more importantly, why are we posting pictures and articles on news sites every time we hear about a mother who nursed a single child for more than three years?  Why does it spark such a hot debate, and why is everybody so up-in-arms about it?

I agree, breastfeeding needs publicizing and normalizing, especially after decades, perhaps even centuries, of formula propaganda.  But is publicizing breastfed six year olds helping the cause or hurting it?

And another question: When we say “extended nursing,” are we talking about nursing past the age of twelve months, past the age of two years, or something else?  I guess it all depends on what “normal nursing” would be.

2 thoughts on “Extended Breastfeeding: Until What Age?

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