This is another hard post to write as people feel so vehemently one way or the other about this subject. However, I am writing it because there is so little information available about this that applies to breastfeeding mothers nursing an “older child” in an industrial society in our time, even though we know the “biological” age of weaning is two and a half to seven years of age. Much of the work regarding nursing a child over the age of four looks at either non-Westernized societies (like I found a study on four-year-olds in Bangladesh who were nursing 8 to 9 times a day, many of whom were assumed to be nursing due to being nutritionally stressed) or the work is more from an anthropological perspective, such as boys in royalty were nursed longer.
I am nursing my youngest, a four and a half year old one to three or four times a day right now. My oldest child nursed until she was a little over three years of age, weaned when I was on bed rest with my second pregnancy, came back to the breast eight months later (and tried to remember how to nurse, LOL) and attempted to nurse on and off until she was about four and three quarters. Contrary to many people feeling uncomfortable about nursing a child over the age of 4, I don’t feel uncomfortable or badly about it.
I have many friends who have weaned children somewhere between the ages of 4 and 7. People ask about child-led weaning; I have seen some children “wean themselves” but the relationship there seemed to me to always be a dance between mother and child with limits typically being set by the mother from an earlier age onward. Many of the children who nurse frequently at the age of three or three and a half seem to go on to nurse longer than those who are not nursing frequently at three and a half.
I have one friend who wryly observes that her middle child, “was just sort of my experiment. I set no limits on nursing at all, and he nursed until he was 7.” (And this is a very structured, organized, limit-setting kind of woman!) I have another friend who says that she feels most children after the age of 4 need some gentle assistance in weaning, and she feels there is no true “child-led” weaning unless you really do want to take that avid three and a half year old nursling and nurse them until they are 7 – and not everyone is comfortable with that. There are older children over the age of three who do abruptly wean due to pregnancy or birth of a new sibling, but I have heard of these cases much less often than one would imagine. However, these are not observations from a medical, scientific study – just what I have observed in my over ten years of working with breastfeeding mothers in lay groups and lactation settings.
Breastfeeding is a relationship between two people, and as such both parties deserve to have dignity and respect, especially the child. The child may have high needs to be met, and some children have intense physiological sucking needs into the fourth year. I am sure we can all remember children who sucked their thumbs until they were much older than four or five! Some children have physiologic disease processes and truly need the antibodies that human milk provides. The need for mother’s physical presence, for connection and the feeling of unconditional love and acceptance that comes from being at the breast is always there, always remains, in these early years before adolescence. The question becomes how comfortable one is using the breast to provide sucking, connection or closeness, or even antibodies, as the child grows and matures.
The question becomes how you feel in your heart. Some mothers give a lot of “talk” to their child regarding weaning, “becoming a big boy or girl”, but truly feel conflicted in their heart. They feel weaning is hard for the child, and they are not sure how to proceed without hurting the child or the child’s feelings, and they wonder how the relationship between themselves and the child will look once weaning is completed. The mother and child have to find their relationship without that component of close connection, and this can feel challenging to both the mother and the child.
Instead of making this a time of conflict and ambivalence, I suggest several things:
1. Search your heart and see if you can see weaning as a process of opening the world to your child, of not “taking away” this precious relationship, but part of growing up, of expanding horizons.
2. Do you love your child unconditionally at times other than when they are at the breast? Does your love and warmth and respect for this child come forth? If not, nursing may be how they are searching to fill this – that close and loving connection that occurs at the breast. If you do want to wean, concentrate on your own positive thoughts toward your child and your relationship with that child first.
3. Search your heart and KNOW that your child (and you!) are going to be okay! Find the positive ways your child can relax, go to sleep, handle the normal tensional outlets of each developmental stage and capitalize on that.
4. Work on discovering your child’s “love languages”. If your child’s love language is “physical touch”, make sure you are filling their love tank with lots of physical touch at times other than nursing times. If your child’s love tank is filled with “quality time”, do make sure you are providing lots of quality time to your child when you are not nursing.
5. Have distractions ready for when the phone rings and that sort of thing.. ..I know many four-year-olds who still would like to nurse when mother is on the phone!
6. Look at your daily schedule and see how your child does with nursing when you are busy (some nurse less naturally then, but some nurse more because then they feel over-stimulated) versus when you are at home all the time (again, some children nurse less and some nurse more).
7. If you are not comfortable nursing your child much past the age of 4 or 5, and your child is an avid nurser…. ….then it probably will be up to you to help your child cut down the number of nursings a day. You have to be comfortable with this idea, and if you are not and want a truly child-led weaning, you may have to nurse until 5 or 6. With some children the more you talk about weaning and cutting down number of nursings a day, the more anxious they become. Many of the mothers I know had better success in just structuring their day so they were busy, daddy took over bedtimes in some cases, and other things that gradually and naturally cut nursing down without a lot of explanation other than peacefully saying, “We can nurse at “X” time. I am happy to (hold you now, get you a drink, get you something to eat, to play a game with you, to go to the pool, etc.) right now.”
8. Again, if you are ready to have the nursing relationship come down in intensity and you are helping your child grow, there may be some tears if the child is four and five and used to a certain rhythmical pattern of nursing to sleep or whathave you. Again, this is where you must search your heart, see what you are comfortable with, feel okay that you truly are uplifting your child to the next level, that your child is growing up and it is going to be okay. If you cannot believe this in your heart, then neither you nor your child is ready to wean.
9. Some families do have a weaning party or provide a special weaning necklace or out to lunch to celebrate weaning. Again, some children need help with moving on and need you to either decide it is okay to nurse until age 7 or they need you to be kind but not crumple. They may need you to say after a weaning party or weaning lunch something to the effect of, “Nursing you was so special to me as well. Today Daddy is going to take your little sister so you and I can do “X” together.”
10. Work hard to examine how you feel about the joy of mothering. If in your heart you feel enraptured with being home, with mothering, if you delight in your children, they are going to also feel joyful, happy, peaceful even without nursing and as nursing transitions and fades away.
If you continue to nurse your older child, be happy about it, be proud about it and know that when they are developmentally ready they will be done. Whether or not “true” child-led weaning works for your family or not, whether you decide your child may need your help , cannot be decided by anyone but you and in your own observations of your child. You can still respect your child and your child’s dignity whatever path you choose. The path for the older child is not as clear as the path when nursing a small two or three year old, and that is okay, that is part of parenting.
Be comfortable with yourself and what your family needs from you, from the times when you do need to take the lead and the times when you need to surrender yourself. That is the walk we walk in parenting a child that is a bit older. But most of all, get clear in your own heart and decide. That is what makes for a joyful family!