When should you stop breastfeeding a child?

Suzanne Harrington and Colette Keane debate when is the right time to stop breastfeeding a child.


Suzanne Harrington @soozysuze 

When should you stop breastfeeding a child?

Why do we think it’s weird to breastfeed beyond babyhood and into the toddler years? Why, as a society, does it freak us out so much? Fine for babies, nice small helpless babies, but the minute those babies have teeth and the ability to form sentences requesting some breastmilk, why do we collectively shudder and instead shove milk from an entirely different species – cows - at them? Surely that’s even weirder?

First of all, let’s see what the World Health Organisation says about breastfeeding. The WHO emphatically does not think it’s weird to breastfeed beyond the age of two. It recommends breastmilk exclusively for the first six months, continuing with complementary foods until the child is two - or older. Note those key words ‘or older’.

Anthropologist Kathy Dettwyler, in her study The Natural Age of Weaning, concludes that biologically and physiologically, human weaning can occur anytime between the ages of 2 and 7. In our closest primate relatives, weaning happens when the first molars appear. Globally, around 50% of children are still breastfed aged two. Breastmilk – and the act of breastfeeding – provides perfect nutrition and immunity for babies and small children, as well as emotional comfort and security. That’s why women have breasts.

So our eeek reaction to breastfeeding toddlers is learned behaviour. Weaning is culturally defined, and in our culture, breasts are used to sell cars. They belong to sex. To commodification, to consumerism, to narcissism. To bra manufacturers, plastic surgeons, adult entertainment. Think I’m exaggerating? It is now more culturally acceptable to pay a man to slash open your breasts and stuff them with chicken fillet shaped silicon bags to make them grow bigger than it is to breastfeed a child beyond infanthood to make them grow bigger. In mainstream culture, the declaration “I’m getting a boob job” is met with less horror and revulsion than “I’m breastfeeding my three year old.” We are that disassociated from our own bodies. Thanks, consumer capitalism.

Because yes, there is a link between consumerism and finding it weird to feed your toddler yourself. If you keep on feeding your kid past infanthood, who is going to buy all that ‘follow-on’ product? Despite this ‘follow-on’ stuff being dismissed back in 1986 by the World Health Assembly as “not necessary”, corporations feed on – sorry – maternal anxiety that somehow what we manufacture for free inside our own bodies is inferior to what they make from dried cow’s milk, originally designed, in case we have forgotten, for baby cows. And who will buy all those sippy-cups and weaning accouterments, if your kid is still latched on?

Apart from the sexualisation and commodification of breasts so that we can forget their primary purpose (resulting in outrage from the anti-breastfeeding police when women feed their kids in public spaces, even as we are blind to images of women’s breasts selling everything from beer to perfume), there is another aspect to our fear and distaste. Puritanism. Massive, unreconstructed puritanism.

As a society, we are still getting our heads – and our babies’ mouths – around breastfeeding. A recent report, Growing Up In Ireland, shows that we have the lowest rate of breastfeeding in the world. Yes, the whole world. On average, Irish babies are weaned at four months – no wonder we can’t handle the idea of long term breastfeeding if we can’t, as a society, handle it short term.

This is not about mothers. It’s about all of us. We are still, for all our recent social evolution, still squeamish as hell about bodies. Especially women’s bodies. We don’t know where to look. And women internalise this message, which is why we still don’t feel comfortable doing what is natural. And no, your kid won’t end up like the David Walliams Bitty character in Little Britain. Seriously.


Colette Keane

When should you stop breastfeeding a child?

Don’t get me wrong, I was lucky enough to experience the joys — and agonies — of breastfeeding three times. I just think like all good things, it should come to an end — before they can start asking for it.

The time I spent breastfeeding my three daughters was special. It was our time, where we would gaze at each other and try to get to know each other a little better. Each one had an unique way about them: one would lock her navy blue eyes on me daring me to break eye contact first, while tracing ever decreasing circles with her index finger on my chest; another would gaze at her fingers as she turned them this way and that, while the last one would hang on, determined to never let me go.

These are memories I will cherish, along with ease of being able to do the night-time feeds from the comfort of my bed, which often turned into night-time snuggles. But they are the memories I associate with them as infants and young babies — these are the not memories they should be able to share with me too.

I find it frankly disturbing to think of children capable of conversation running up to their mother and shoving their head up their tops for a slurp before running off again to score a goal. Have you ever heard of a water break?

With most experts agreeing that after 12 months there is little benefit to the child, you have to wonder is prolonged breastfeeding for the benefit of the child or the mother? An attempt to prolong the babyhood phase? An acquaintance of mine held long-simmering resentment towards his wife over her insistence at continuing breastfeeding her son well past his fourth birthday. Even after he went to school. School! Often insisting on his bit of, well, you know, while still in his school uniform. On the birth of our third child that mother told me she would have loved another baby, at which point her husband gruffly pointed out that it might have helped if her golden boy had been booted out of the marital bed a few years earlier.

And that’s another thing — what about the impact on your partner? It’s kind of difficult to be amorous with cracked nipples and leaking breasts, not to mention the prospect of a three-year-old shuffling into the bedroom wedging in between the two of you looking for a night-time snack that only mammy can supply.

While there are many benefits to breastfeeding — boosted immune systems for the baby, links to higher IQs, better skin, not to mention a natural weight loss programme for mum — there are drawbacks too. A mere cry of hunger from my newborn was enough for arcs of milk to come spurting out of me like a shootout in a Western, and if our feeding pattern was disrupted it became obvious that time and breastmilk wait for no man. I suffered through an average of three bouts of mastitis per child which for anyone who doesn’t know, is like red hot pokers being skewered into your breast and then having to continue to ‘feed through the pain’ while enduring raging fevers and chills. And still I breastfed them for between four and six months because I recognized its importance.On a practical note, most women also have to go back to work six months after the birth and no one wants to be in a meeting with breast milk leaking down their top and hormones raging.

And, yes, I was sad when the time came to hang up my nursing bra that last time after four months of feeding. But it was all part of the journey of watching them grow up, just like their other phases such asteething or toilet training.

Breastfeeding is a beautiful, natural part of motherhood. Just let them reach for a different kind of nipple when it starts to get a bit creepy.


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