You can breastfeed for as long as you and your baby are happy to breastfeed. There is no upper age limit at which breast milk becomes like water (and even if it did, children need water, right?). And there is no need to worry that if you don’t wean by a certain age your little one will never wean, or that there would be any negative psychological effects.
This article looks at the natural age of weaning, the benefits of continuing to breastfeed past society’s expectations and answers frequently asked questions about breastfeeding an older baby.
Stopping breastfeeding naturally
Many mothers continue to breastfeed until their little one is ready to stop. This always happens at some point and you don’t need to be concerned that your adult son or daughter might still ask to breastfeed! Across the world it is normal for babies to continue to breastfeed into their second, third or even fourth year and weaning happens naturally and slowly until one day the child wants to breastfeed for the last time. Some mothers will hasten this process by cutting down on certain feeds while others will be happy to go with the flow.There is no need to worry that if you don’t wean by a certain age your little one will never weanClick To Tweet
What is the natural age of weaning for human babies?
Kathy Dettwyler is an anthropology professor, author and breastfeeding advocate who has studied the biologically normal time to stop breastfeeding human babies compared to other mammals. Dettwyler found the minimum predicted age for a natural age of weaning in humans is 2.5 years, with a maximum of 7.0 years.
In societies where children are allowed to nurse “as long as they want” they usually self-wean, with no arguments or emotional trauma, between 3 and 4 years of age.
Breastfeeding is healthy for you and your baby
There are many benefits of continuing to breastfeed a toddler for both mother and child:
#1 Great food
Although there may be slight changes in the balance of nutrients over time, breast milk continues to be both a nutritious food and to support the child’s immune system from the first to the last drop 123.
Many nutrients show a gradual decrease in concentration of around 10% to 30% during the first year of lactation, often reaching a low plateau thereafter. A greater decrease occurs for some components, such as zinc. Some components show little change, especially those involved in osmoregulation, including lactose and sodium, whereas a few, notably lysozyme, increase.
#2 Immunity against disease
The following article originally from Attachment Parenting International explains:
Breastmilk is only 10% nutrition. The remaining 90% continues to contribute to the health and proper development of every system in the child. It continues to provide an essential supply of antibodies for illness protection. The immunological protection from breastfeeding actually increases during the second and third years. Breastmilk is antibacterial, antiviral, anti-parasitic, and antifungal.
#3 Emotional security
In addition to continuing to be nutritious, and helping to protect your child from illness, breastfeeding provides comfort and emotional security. Breastfeeding is an amazing help to mothering—fixing all sorts of toddler stresses in an instant. One study found increased behavioural problems and mental health problems in children and adolescents who had a shorter time breastfeeding 7.
#4 Health benefits for mother
#5 Correct mouth formation
Continuing to breastfeed into toddler years fosters a wide palate for all your baby’s adult teeth11.
Frequently asked questions
What about teeth?
As the first teeth appear when your baby is around the age of six months, it is quite normal for a baby to still be breastfeeding with teeth. Teeth don’t usually cause any problems. However occasionally an older baby may accidentally bite the breast or graze a nipple with their teeth. See Baby Biting While Breastfeeding for more information about all aspects of biting during breastfeeding and how to prevent it.
What if a child is old enough to ask to breastfeed?
Your baby has been asking to breastfeed since birth. Whether it was sucking his fingers, searching with his mouth or by crying, even tiny babies can ask to breastfeed. Later a toddler will be able to ask in different ways, perhaps lifting your top or using a special name for breastfeeding. Since some two-year-olds can have a good grasp of language, being able to ask for a breastfeed in words is not a sign that your child needs to wean. However, it may mean that it is easier for you to negotiate shorter feeds, or delay breastfeeding until you get home. This is all part of the process of natural weaning.Breastfeeding a toddler or pre-schooler is not a newsworthy or shocking event as it is biologically normal.Click To Tweet
Is the mother doing it for herself?
This question is sometimes asked by people who have never breastfed a child into toddlerhood nor seen natural term breastfeeding close hand. No, the mother isn’t breastfeeding her baby for her own benefit. Breastfeeding an older child can often be uncomfortable and irritating. You cannot make a child breastfeed if they do not want to. Mothers continue to breastfeed because they know their child benefits from it, and because mothering would be harder without the magic of calming a stressed toddler at the breast.
If you are enjoying breastfeeding but feel isolated because you don’t know anyone else still breastfeeding, it can be very reassuring to find a breastfeeding group for support e.g. a La Leche League meeting.
How long should I breastfeed?
This is a personal decision between mother and baby. You can breastfeed for as long as you want to. Equally you can stop when you want to.
The decision when to stop breastfeeding is a personal choice and nobody’s business but a mother’s own. Breastfeeding is not time dependent, you do not have to stop breastfeeding when a baby has teeth or once he can walk or talk, or because family or friends think your baby is too old for ‘that’.
What if I want to stop breastfeeding?
Have a look at How to Stop Breastfeeding for tips to reduce your milk supply if you want to be more proactive about weaning. Stopping breastfeeding abruptly can be physically and emotionally traumatic for both mother and baby and is best avoided when possible. If you are not sure whether you want to stop breastfeeding but are feeling under pressure to do so, you may find Pressure to Stop Breastfeeding helpful.
Breastfeeding is much like any other developmental stage, it will be outgrown when the child is ready. This is often when a child is around three or four years old. Some children may be a little older, while some may be a little younger. Some mothers will hasten the process, while some will wait until their little one naturally gives up breastfeeding. Breastfeeding a toddler or pre-schooler is not a newsworthy or shocking event as it is biologically normal. You can breastfeed as long as you want to!