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  Parenting Advice Column
  Subject: Weaning a Two-year-old

Hi Jan,
Do you really mean your child was seven years old when s/he weaned?? My son is 2 years and 2 months and he loves to nurse; however, I am sometimes too distracted, irritated, etc and think it would be good to wean him. Tell me about nursing an older child, when and where do you nurse? My, seven seems so old. My older son is four and we stopped nursing when I was pregnant and he was two, my nipples were so sore and he was willing to stop since I wasn't producing much milk.

Thanks for your reply,

Joy

Jan's reply:

Hi Joy,

Yes, my son was seven. However, that is somewhat misleading, because after about age 3, his nursing decreased considerably both in duration and frequency. The last few years were very minimal - on many days just briefly one time before sleep, and on some days not at all. Many mothers who choose to nurse past toddlerhood find that their child nurses even less often than my son did - just a few times a week or month.

Nursing as long as we did was not my original expectation. When he was your son's age, I would have been amazed to know how long it would continue! But what I didn't know until later was that nursing past age 2 is decidedly different from nursing a baby. It takes much less time and energy, and is physically almost no "work" at all - in fact it helped me to relax after a tiring or difficult day, and I looked forward to it as much as he did. The only real difficulty we ever had was from well-meant but hurtful comments from relatives. I soon learned that brief responses recognizing their good intentions worked best.

As he continued with it, I assumed there were good reasons, even though I didn't know at that time that nursing in many so-called "primitive" or natural societies lasts an average of 5 to 7 years, as it still does in many societies today. Nursing less is actually abnormal from that perspective, and it is my belief that this length of time was the norm for the tens of millions of years before we became "civilized". Deliberate weaning by the mother is definitely a modern trend.

Anthropologists have reported that in those societies where extended breastfeeding is common, there is an increase in longevity. This is thought to be related to the immunizing function of nursing. As milk production decreases, the immune factors in breastmilk increase. As the human immune system is not fully developed until age 6, it is logical to assume that nursing for at least 6 years is Nature's plan.

Still, even when we understand the reasons for extended nursing, it is only natural to experience doubts and indecision during stressful times - especially if our child reacts to the stress by nursing more frequently. I often had such doubts myself. However, I am immensely glad that we continued, as it helped to establish his near-perfect health, gave me my best "tool" during his energetic toddlerhood, and also contributed to a beautifully strong bond between us that we are still enjoying now in his teenage years. I feel sure that we will never lose that precious closeness, and that continuing with our nursing relationship as long as we did was a major factor.

As to "when and where" to nurse, this common concern becomes much less of a problem over time. A toddler or an older child - especially one who is emotionally close to his/her mother - can understand and accept limitations and delays that a baby cannot. Like many other parenting decisions, extended breastfeeding does not need to be seen as an "all or nothing" proposition. As circumstances require, the mother can establish a "partial weaning" by gently setting limits as to both time and place. For example, some mothers stop nursing in public, or delay nursing when certain people are present, or when the mother is too tired or ill. Others simply "play it by ear" in deciding the time and place. The most important consideration here is that it is possible and preferable for the mother to meet both her needs and that of her child in whatever way works best.

In terms of the specific benefits of nursing, the longer your son nurses, the better; at the same time, there is never a need to commit yourself to 7 years, or even 3. It's best to consider nursing as a decision "in progress", allowing for continuation for as long as it is working for you and your son, and without remorse if you ever need to stop. The important thing is to become knowledgeable enough that a decision to wean is truly an informed choice that you will not regret later.

A book that is very helpful in considering this question is Mothering Your Nursing Toddler by Norma Jane Bumgarner. I wish every parent could read this informative and supportive book! We have one of Norma Jane's articles on our site:

"Why Mothers Nurse Their Children into Toddlerhood"

Another excellent book is The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding by the La Leche League, which thoroughly covers the question of extended nursing, weaning, and all other aspects of the nursing relationship.

References:

La Leche League

Benefits of Extended Breastfeeding (Kelly's Attachment Parenting Page)

"A Time to Wean"

"Breastfeeding: New Discoveries" by Dr. George Wootan

"Responding to Criticism" (La Leche League)

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