Life & Style | Parenting

Hot debate: Is it ok to breastfeed beyond the age of two?

When it comes to providing our children with the healthiest start in life, there’s no denying that ‘breast is best’. But at what point do we move our little ones from breast to bottle? And is it healthy or harmful to keep breastfeeding after the toddler years?

  • By Kate Birch and Louisa Wilkins, Aquarius magazine
  • Published: 16:25 October 30, 2012
  • Aquarius

Mother and baby
  • Image Credit: Gulf News Archive
  • Researchers in Sweden are citing breast milk as a cure for cancer.

YES

Earth Mother, 36, has two children aged four and six, who are both nursing at the same time

Firstly, breast milk is infinitely better for my children than anything I can buy at the shops, or make at home. It reduces their risk of obesity, allergies, cot death, infections and, later in life, cancers, multiple sclerosis and more – researchers in Sweden are citing it as a cure for cancer. Secondly, it is good for me. Not only does it reduce my risk of breast and ovarian cancers and osteoporosis, but it burns more calories every day than a 5km run and is absolutely free.

So why should I stop nursing my children when they turn two? According to Meredith Small, professor of anthropology and author of Our Babies, Ourselves, for 99 per cent of mankind’s existence, breast milk was the primary (or sole) form of food for the first two years of a child’s life and continued as a supplement for many years after. Additionally, many non-Western cultures still advocate breastfeeding past two – the only reason we stopped is because it became socially taboo.

Dr Deema Lana Sihweil, clinical psychologist at the Human Relations Institute, isn’t for, or against, breastfeeding past the age of two, but is “pro choice”. She believes most of the stigma associated with feeding past the baby stage is because of the sexual image of breasts. She says, “The breast is a sexualised object. For years, it has symbolised everything but its biological function. Social stigmas are based on this unfortunate trend and this needs to be discouraged. Breastfeeding is also absurdly associated with poverty, non-working mothers and mothers who have psychological problems when it comes to attachment.

These are all unfounded.” She goes on to say, “Doctors, psychologists and anthropologists know that healthy behaviours around breastfeeding for the first several years of life (up to four years in most studies) is proven to be beneficial in the long run.” In my opinion, the question is not why I do it, the question is why don’t you? Most parents bend over backwards to do right by their children – vitamins, inoculations, good schools, educational entertainment, organic food – and yet they turn their back on the easiest, oldest, cheapest, most natural and best form of nutrition out there.

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Parents stop breastfeeding only to start filling their kids up on formula and cow’s milk. Where’s the logic in that? It’s like banning your kids from drinking water so they will start liking Coke. It doesn’t make sense. As for emotional and psychological health, while I am not sure I condone teenagers and young adults turning to their mothers for a suckle in times of distress (this does happen according to Ann Sinnott, author of Breastfeeding Older Children), for school-age children, it’s thought to boost confidence, overall happiness and test scores. And I think I am closer to my children because of it. What’s not to like?

To people who think it is sexual, I say our breasts evolved for one function – to feed our children. The fact that they are seen as sexual is not my children’s fault, and I won’t jeopardise their health because of it. When I see parents loading their children up on junk food and sweets, I wonder why it’s these very same parents who judge me for nursing my six-year-old. What I do is totally natural and, until recently, used to be normal. Just because you care what society thinks of you, it doesn’t mean I have to. After all, it’s my body, my children, my life. You do it your way, I’ll do it mine. I sleep soundly at night knowing I’ve done the best I can that day for my kids. Can you say the same?

NO

Practical mother, 32, has two children aged seven and 11, who she breastfed for a year each

There are many unwritten laws when it comes to parenting that rely on common sense and the peer pressure of society to keep them in check. Though bringing up baby is not an exact science, there are common guidelines that have become a ‘norm’ for proper parenting. The recommendation rather than regulation on breastfeeding is that after two years of nipple nourishment, it’s time to move on to the bottle. Yes, breast may be best for baby (even though I didn’t enjoy the suckling experience, I nursed both my babies for a year each for nutritional reasons) but by the time your toddler is two (and has teeth) it’s time to withdraw.

From a health perspective, the World Health Organization recommends breastfeeding with “appropriate complementary foods for up to two years or beyond”. And there’s the grey area – how far ‘beyond’ are some women willing to go? Four? Five? Six? I once met a woman who still breastfed her six-year-old son (I’ll be honest, I was repulsed), and there are reports, as recorded in Ann Sinnott’s ode to the benefits of extended breastfeeding (Breastfeeding Older Children), of women still suckling sprogs aged seven, eight and nine.

But why would this be good for the kids? From what I’ve unearthed, there seems to be no clear benefits for the child (there’s little research on the nutritional benefits after the age of two) and if they’re still glugging breast milk, they’re missing out on real food, solid food. But it’s the psychological part of this that disturbs me most. Surely, once a child can walk across a room and ask for IT, it’s time to put them away for good. “It is certainly recognised within the psychology professions that breastfeeding your child has positive long-lasting benefits,” says Dr Amy Bailey, clinical psychologist at KidsFIRST Medical Centre.

“However, beyond the age of two our parenting task changes to one in which we need to help our child learn to develop independence.” She goes on to explain how developmental psychologist Eric Erikson asserts that the main focus of development between the ages of two and four is the development of autonomy and that, “breastfeeding beyond two may interfere with or delay this, creating a needy child who struggles interacting independently.” I couldn’t agree more. Not only is there something ‘weird’ about an older child being breastfed, but also I fear for the long-term effects of what I purely see as smother mothering.

As a mother of two, I can appreciate how hard it is to ‘let go’, and breastfeeding is the first of those hurdles we have to tackle. But that is our role as ‘good parents’ to relinquish our responsibilities and let our kids develop into fully functioning, emotionally sound adults, rather than selfishly holding on to them for our own needy and emotional benefits, which I personally believe extended breastfeeding, like that of co-sleeping (allowing your child to sleep in your bed) is all about.

“Though deciding when to stop breastfeeding is a personal choice, we need to think carefully about whose need it is we are fulfilling. Ultimately the best decision is the one in the child’s best interests. Are we putting our child at risk of being socially rejected, for example?” asks Dr Bailey. Yes, I think we are. In fact, I would go as far as to say that a mum who breastfeeds beyond the norm is being selfish, or perhaps understandably, needs some help in letting go and moving on to be the supportive mother she should be.

What you say

“I don’t think there is any nutritional value to breast milk past the age of two, so it has to
be a personal choice. Personally, it would freak me out if my child could ask for it.”
Aquarius fan Abigail Thirion

“I breastfed both my sons until they were three and never regretted it. It’s a personal choice – I was berated a few times, which I think is just simply rude. It’s nobody else’s business.”
Aquarius fan Deepti Ramachandran

“It’s a personal choice, but feeding a five- or six-year-old is a bit much.”
Aquarius fan Mary James

“If it makes the mother and child both happy, then there’s really no problem with it – after all, it can’t be harmful, it’s mother nature calling.”
Aquarius fan Lauren White

“I’d rather my children knew the real reason for breasts, rather than how society sees them... for tiltillation..”
Aquarius fan Sian Baldwin Khoury

Comments (6)

Share your views
  1. Added 21:33 November 2, 2012

    I began discussing the concept of weaning with my daughter when she was two years old. At the age of three, she declared that she would nurse forever. By the age of eight, I thought she might actually be serious! My daughter has always been very sensitive and needy, and as a parent I felt responsible to fulfill those needs to her satisfaction. She weaned herself at age 8, and is very independent, intelligent, and compassionate toward others. I can't say I never felt the need to hurry her, but I'm glad I let her choose her own time to wean. She knows I will always be there for her, and she also knows that her opinion matters. I don't regret being close to my daughter, but I also don't expect too many others to do what I did. It is a personal choice. I made my choice; I don't need the approval of others, but I don't think it's their business to judge my choice, just as it is not my business to judge theirs.

    set geo, anytown, United States

  2. Added 19:14 November 2, 2012

    I'd have thought that if both parent and child want to continue nursing, then continue nursing. I know kids who have been breastfed til 4, 5, 6, 7 years old. Far from damaged by the experience, they've grown up to be healthy and secure, with great relationships both inside and outside the home. Time to let the mums parent in the way that suits their family perhaps? If you don't want to breastfeed after 2, that's fine - but don't start telling mums that do that it it's wrong or sick to carry on breastfeeding. It isn't, it's perfectly natural and has many benefits for all concerned.

    Barbara, London, United Kingdom

  3. Added 16:19 November 2, 2012

    What is all this fuss about needing to stop when a child can ask for it? A new born baby can ask for it - they make it very clear when they need to feed. As for this predominantly American view of encouraging independence from the age of 2, I find this very sad. Children grow up so fast without us pushing them to grow up any faster - they naturally become independent when they are ready, and in the same way will stop breastfeeding when they are ready. It is such a shame that women have lost faith in their mothering instincts.

    Jo, Barnsley, United Kingdom

  4. Added 16:12 November 2, 2012

    Yes, it is healthy. Read Katherine Dettwyler and her studies re nursing mammals and lifespan. Also, why are so many discussions about wrapping a time frame around this incredibly healthy and nurturing natural act? Mothers and their babies should work in union on this issue and they'll be the deciders. Some children naturally wean at 1-2, some children nurse to 7. There should be no "rule" or time frame. When a child is nursed they learn intimacy ... the first step to a healthy successful life.

    Jane Gabbert, New York City, United States

  5. Added 14:33 November 2, 2012

    Once mother and child are both happy to continue, that's all that matters. The WHO recommends breastfeeding for 2yrs and beyond.

    Ange, Kildare, Ireland

  6. Added 14:03 November 2, 2012

    If it's not okay then clearly someone forgot to tell the millions of humans throughout human history who breastfed to 6 or 7 or beyond. And indeed the millions of humans who still do so. Cultural pressures change. Cultural expectations change. Cultural fashions (norms) change. Our biology has not caught up with modern life, and a child is still biologically designed to get maximum benefit from breastmilk. In previous eras and in places other than the West this could be a matter of life and death. But, perhaps surprisingly to many, even in our own society childhood nursing can still have significant positive impact on well-being, both physical and emotional.- For both mother and child!

    Claire, London, United Kingdom

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