When is a child too old to breastfeed?
Women come under a lot of scrutiny when it comes to breastfeeding. There are those who are shamed for doing it in public, those who are corrected for doing it wrong, and those who are criticized for not doing it at all. And then there are those who continue to do it even when their child is old enough to talk in full sentences.
Davina Wright, a mother of five who lives in New Zealand, wrote a blog post for The Milk Meg about continuing to breastfeed her triplets who are now five years old.
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“I have often heard, ‘oh you’re just doing it for you now, it’s not about the children,’ but in all honesty I would be happy if they weaned now,” she wrote. “I am big on letting the child decide when they are ready to wean.”
Her post raises the question about whether there should be a cut-off age for breastfeeding children.
“It’s a controversial topic in North America and Europe, for sure,” says Stefanie Carrabin, a certified lactation consultant and breastfeeding expert. “But the immunobiology benefits are huge. Anything the mother is exposed to will be processed in her body, which will then build antibodies that will be passed on through the breast milk. It’s like an ongoing vaccination.”
Health Canada recommends exclusive breastfeeding of infants up to six months old, and extends its recommendation to two years and beyond with appropriate complementary nutrition.
“People always ignore the ‘two years and beyond‘ recommendation,” Carrabin says. “It’s basically saying there are no limits.”
Breastfeeding advocates also question what we consider to be generally accepted norms when it comes to nutrition.
“Most people in our society recognize that young children drinking milk is a good idea, but there’s a bizarre shift in thinking human milk is harmful and bovine milk is better,” says Genia Stephen, a midwife and lactation consultant. “Cow’s milk is not optimally designed for humans, whereas human milk is. The immune and growth factors in breast milk change intrinsically as the child ages. Breast milk produced for a four-month-old is different than breast milk produced for a four-year-old.”
There’s a common misconception that toddlers who continue to breastfeed are less independent and “clingy.” But professionals, medical and holistic alike, are quick to quash that perception.
“The child who breastfeeds until he weans himself — usually from two to four years — is usually more independent, and more secure in his independence,” writes Dr. Jack Newman, a pediatrician and executive director of the International Breastfeeding Centre. “He has received comfort and security from the breast until he is ready to make the step himself to stop. And when a child makes that step himself, it is a milestone in his life of which he is proud.”
“Of course, breastfeeding can, in some situations, be used to foster an over-dependent relationship. But so can food or toilet training. The problem is not the breastfeeding. This is another issue.”
Experts say that it all boils down to personal preference. And it’s a decision that women and their children should be able to make without judgement or criticism.
“The looks and comments that mothers who are breastfeeding their toddler children in public receive are demeaning,” says Carrabin. “That’s not about the mother, it’s about other people and their reactions.”
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