Weaning Part V: When to Stop Breastfeeding

This will be the last post in the weaning series. I hope that you’ve enjoyed this series and would love to hear your thoughts on it. You can find the other posts in the series here: Weaning Part I: When to Start Solids Weaning Part II: Baby's First Food Weaning Part III: Baby Led Weaning Weaning Part IV: Allergies and Foods to Avoid

Today I want to share with you my thoughts and plans about when to stop nursing. I’ve been hesitant to write this post because, well, honestly, I fear that some of you might judge me for it. I know that I fear what people will think of me and often make decisions based on that motivation, but I don’t want to make decisions based on fear and cultural stigmas when it comes to my child, instead I want to make informed, intentional decisions based on what’s best for my own family. So, if you disagree with this post or you choose a different way for you and your family please know that I respect that and hope that you will be equally as gracious with me.

Let’s start with my own experiences with weaning. First of all, as far as I am aware, I have never personally known anyone who has nursed much longer than a year. So, I think there is a part of me that just always assumed I would wean my child around their first birthday, like most people I know. Sure, I had heard of people nursing more long term (in fact I knew that my husband’s grandfather, who is from Europe, had been nursed till he was 3), but most of the time when I heard about people nursing long term it was fairly negative. In fact even when I was pregnant I was part of a conversation with a group of ladies who all agreed that once the child could ask for it they were too old to be breastfed.

But, as my son get’s closer and closer to turning one I just can’t imagine stopping breastfeeding. Sure there are moments when I long for my freedom (especially since we haven’t introduced bottles at all) and there are moments when my nipples get soar and I’m tired of waking up in the night. But, for the most part, I love breastfeeding. I love the closeness it creates. I love how easy it is and that I don’t have stress about balancing meals or packing food when we’re out. I love knowing that it’s the best possible form of nutrition for him and that it has all sorts of health benefits for him and for me.

So, over the past few months I started wondering what was really best for me and my son. I know what others around me had done. And I know some of the reasons why, but what should I do? How long do I want to breastfeed and what is going to be best for both my health and my sons?

As I asked these questions I did some research. Here’s what I found out:

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that women breastfeed for a minimum of one year. The World Health Organization, on the other hand, recommends that women continue to breastfeed their babies until the baby is at LEAST 2 years old. I was actually really surprised by this. I had no idea before looking into it that the WHO’s minimum recommendation for nursing was 2 years. Then I started to wonder why the difference between the AAP and the WHO?? Basically the WHO doesn’t take cultural norms or societal stigmas into consideration; their recommendation is based solely on health. The AAP does take cultural norms into account with their recommendation. Both the AAP and the WHO state that breastfeeding beyond their minimums will benefit both the mother and the child and that breastfeeding should be continued for as long as “mutually desired.”

Something else I found really interesting was that the American Academy of Family Physicians states that children weaned before two years of age are at an increased risk of illness. Did you know that breast milk actually changes in composition the longer you nurse for? It has significantly higher fat and energy contents and some of the immune factors that are always present in breast milk also increase in concentration after a year. Breast milk meets the developing toddlers health needs just as efficiently as it meets the developing newborns needs.

Here are a few of the benefits of nursing until or past two years of age:

  • Nursing toddlers have been found to be sick less often and to recover more quickly from illness then their non-nursing peers.
  • Breastfeeding protects women against breast cancer and the longer a women nurses the more her risk of breast cancer decreases.
  • Extended breastfeeding has been shown to increase IQ. In fact “Extensive research on the relationship between cognitive achievement (IQ scores, grades in school) and breastfeeding has shown the greatest gains for those children breastfed the longest.” This is particularly pronounced in children who are nursed past the age of two.
  • It has been shown to protect against various diseases, including diabetes, heart disease, and multiple sclerosis.
  • A nursing toddler who is sick and refuses to eat is still getting adequate nutrition from breast milk and will be less likely to get dehydrated and more likely to stay nourished (even if they are vomiting because breast milk is so easily and rabidly absorbed by the body).
  • Long-term nursing can reduce the risk of allergies and asthma.
  • One study even connected long-term nursing (babies nursed longer than one year) with social adjustment. Children who had nursed longer were more likely to be rated by mothers and teachers as well adjusted socially and less likely to have conduct problems.
  • In short, all of the advantages of breastfeeding a baby just continue to get stronger the longer you do it. Well, that seems pretty good to me.

For a truly wonderful list of the benefits of breastfeeding (at any age, baby or toddler) click here.

So, what about concerns? What are some reasons why you might not want to breastfeed past a year or into toddlerhood?

  • Many people are concerned that it will create an “unhealthy attachment” in the toddler and that they won’t develop the independence so valued in our society. Studies have actually shown the reverse to be true. Research has shown that children who are allowed to nurse until they are ready to wean themselves are actually less dependent in the long run. It is said that this is because their needs for security have been fully met as infants and they can then move on to independence in their own timing and abilities when they are ready. In some ways this makes sense to me. I think often we try to rush our children to grow up and because we as American’s value independence so much we try and push it on our children even before they are capable of it. Personally I think it is completely appropriate for a toddler to be dependent and attached to his/her mom and to receive both nourishment and comfort from her.
  • Another concern is that if you wait past a year to wean it will be harder when you do wish to wean the child. Instead of weaning a sweet baby you will be weaning an animated toddler. We hear such horror stories of the terrible twos that we think there is no way we would be able to wean in the middle of that so we wean before our children are really ready. It is true that extended nursing means that weaning will take more time and when it does happen it will most likely be a slow process, possibly with two steps forward and one step back all along the way. But, if you wait till the child is truly ready weaning doesn’t need to be a power struggle and you can in fact most likely talk the child through the transition so that they can understand it. To me that seems like a very humane and peaceful option.
  • Another question and concern that I personally had with long-term nursing is what happens if you get pregnant again? We plan on having another child eventually and if I allow Thaddeus to self-wean and nurse long term it is possible that I will become pregnant again before he stops nursing – what happens then? Well, the truth, which I had never known before doing this research, is that it is entirely possible to keep nursing while you are pregnant. If the woman is healthy and the pregnancy is normal there is no reason to stop nursing an older child. It does not pose health risks for you, your toddler or your unborn child. Some women say that their milk dried up when they got pregnant and it may be that they did produce less, but that does not mean that there toddler is not getting anything or that the closeness and comfort nursing provides is not still valuable. There is even some research that suggests that tandem nursing (nursing a new baby and an older sibling at the same time) can result in a better adjustment for the older sibling and a closer relationship for both siblings. Another interesting fact is that your body will still produce colostrum and your newborn will still have all of their nutritional needs met.
  • I would imagine, though, that most often American women don’t breastfeed past one year because of the social stigma’s against it. They may not feel ready to wean, they may desire to nurse longer, but they have bought into the cultural advice that they “should not” wean a toddler. They have heard too many people ask them with raised eyebrows, “you’re still nursing?” They have had too many looks and comments and not enough support and encouragement. So, they stop. This makes me really sad. If a mom feels ready to wean, or weaning is the best option for her situation then I can support that, but it makes me sad to think of women who don’t want to stop but feel pressured into it.

There are many reasons to stop nursing and many reasons for extended nursing  - I truly believe that the decision to completely wean a child is intricate and complex.  It is up to each individual family to decide what is best for them and their personal situation. I for one, though, don’t want to stop nursing my child at a year just because it’s “the norm.”

Honestly, I have no idea when I will stop nursing. I just know that right now I don’t want to stop and I don’t think I need to. I know that I would like to nurse until Thaddeus is at least two, as the World Health Organization recommends, but I don’t know where we will be at by then or before then, so who knows. Really I just want to continue nursing for truly as long as it is mutually desirable for both me and my child.

What about you? If you breastfed your child/children when did you wean them and what were your thoughts and reasons for doing so?

Rejoicing in the journey - Bethany Stedman

Resources for Further Reading and References: