Breastfeeding older children has become a controversial practice in American culture. No one seems neutral in the debate over the benefits and drawbacks of extended breastfeeding, and many object strenuously to breastfeeding children after their toddler years. Extended breastfeeding in the United States and other countries where the food supply is abundant is less about nutrition and more about a kind of bonding. Some wonder if this particular type of bonding has gone a bit too far, and if it isn't evidence of some sort of unhealthy attachment between a mother and child, or even a form of abuse or neglect.
Breastfeeding and the Infant
Both parents and physicians recognize the benefits of breastfeeding a newborn. Human milk contains valuable antibodies and essential nutrients and is somewhat easier for the newborn stomach to digest. While most doctors and experts consider breastfeeding to be preferable, some mothers have to or want to make the choice to feed their babies with formula made from soy or modified cow's milk.
Fortunately, babies can grow and develop normally and even flourish while being fed formula, but the American Academy of Pediatrics officially recommends that babies be breastfed if at all possible, stating in their Policy Statement on Breastfeeding that infants should be fed only breastmilk during their first six months of life. The AAP also recommends that mothers continue to breastfeed their babies for a year or longer.
Most babies naturally decrease the amount of times they breastfeed daily as they get older. Babies continue to need either breast milk or formula for at least their first year, although they will start to gradually replace breast or bottle feedings with meals and snacks of solid foods.
According to Kellymom.com, babies usually do not wean themselves until the age of 18 months. Before then, weaning is generally initiated by the mother. Weaning is usually less stressful for a baby or toddler if it's done gently and gradually. Quitting cold turkey can lead to painful breast engorgement and a confused and very fussy child. Weaning is usually started by gradually dropping a feeding and replacing it with a bottle feeding if the baby needs it. Usually, dad or another relative has to give the child this feeding, as many breastfed babies will not accept anything other than a breast from their mothers.
Children Who Don't Self-Wean
Some advocates of extended breastfeeding maintain that a child's ongoing interest in nursing is evidence that a child is not ready to be weaned. However, many parents would wait a very long time to potty train their toddlers if they waited until their baby decided on his or her own to give up diapers.
While a child of 18 months may still need the closeness and comfort of occasional nursing, it is unlikely that a 3 or 4-year-old would experience any psychological harm from a gradual weaning process. In fact, being gently weaned may be a step toward increased independence. A preschool-aged child still needs to be cuddled, comforted, and cared for, but breastfeeding is not the only way to do this.
At some point in a child's life, he becomes aware of parents and other adults around him as male and female, and he starts noticing the physical differences between the two. At this point, children are usually taught about privacy and respecting their own bodies and the bodies of others. If a child is still breastfeeding at this point, he or she may be in the habit of pulling up mom's shirt and asking to nurse, even in public.
The argument could be made that this type of behavior is not respecting mom's privacy and may make it difficult for the child to understand the concept of privacy. If the child is allowed to nurse or ask to nurse on demand, he or she may not understand when mom wants to take a bath alone or use the bathroom without a small companion.
Breastfeeding Older Children: A Personal Choice
While extended breastfeeding is not widely accepted, it is a personal choice. Some social service agencies have attempted to charge mothers who practice extended breastfeeding with abuse or neglect, and have removed children from their homes. According to lawyer Elizabeth Baldwin on the Single Mom on the Run website, none of these cases has held up in court, and the children were all returned to their parents.
Extended breastfeeding has not been shown to damage children physically, and no studies exist that document any negative emotional or psychological effects of long-term breastfeeding. Without any concrete evidence against it, breastfeeding older children remains a private and personal decision that is best made individually by each breastfeeding mother and her child.