Is breastfeeding past infancy messing up kids?

“I don’t really remember breastfeeding exactly but I remember weaning.”  The bubbly, outgoing 12 year old friend of my own bubbly, outgoing 12 year old daughter, reminded me of a friendly, excited butterfly, flitting about from topic to topic as she danced around our living room while chatting.  Not exactly sure how we got to breastfeeding but it didn’t phase her in the slightest talking about it.

None of my own children remember breastfeeding.  They know they did breastfeed and they’ve seen photographic evidence of this fact but they don’t have any recollection of it.  I asked our friend how old she was when she weaned.

“Four I think, maybe a little older.  My sister was 5 though, she was lucky.”  She began to dance on to another topic.  I brought her back to breastfeeding and asked her what she did remember about breastfeeding and weaning, wanting to know more about her views not only as a 12 year old but the daughter of two physicians.

“I was sad to wean, so sad.  We had a party and I remember it was fun but I liked nursing better than the weaning party.”  Pursed lips and raised eyebrows punctuated this statement.

“Why were you sad about weaning?” I was curious about how she perceived breastfeeding as a 4 year old and how that translated now that she was 12.  Her reaction was priceless: she looked at me like I was stupid and scoffed at me.

“I couldn’t have nurnies any more, of course I was sad.  Nurnies were the best thing ever and now I had to give them up.  I was little, I didn’t like that.  I loved nurnies, of course I was sad to give them up.”

She paused to execute a pirouette.  I took the opportunity to ask what she liked about “nurnies.”

“Well, I don’t know, they were soft and warm.  It just felt good and I think I liked the milk, it was sweet.  But I don’t remember breastfeeding, just how I felt.  Nurnies felt good.  Nurnies felt safe.  Nurnies just felt right.  I don’t really know but I know that I liked nurnies a lot.  And you know what?  I think breastfeeding is more than just good for little kids, it helps them grow up too.  They don’t have to stop when they’re babies, little kids need time to grow up, like…”  She was searching for something as she tried to explain what she meant.

“Like a transition?” I offered.

“Yeah, a transition.  But a slow one over a long time.  It’s not like birds where the mom just kicks them out of the nest.  Having nurnies helps transition, it’s just so nice and I don’t see why it would need to be hurried up, it was good getting to breastfeed for a long time.  I’d have gone longer but I think my mom was ready to be done plus there was my little sister.  She was lucky, she got to go until she was five.”

“You were lucky too, not many children in the USA get what you got.  Even my own children were all weaned by the time they were 3 so far” I tell her.

Her eyes widened: “Really?  Wow, I thought they all breastfed a lot longer.  They act like they did.”

My turn to be surprised.

She explained: “I don’t know, breastfeed kids seem to eat really well, they are what I call high palette kids with more developed tastes I think.  And they are usually so nice and interesting.”

I think of my kids and most of them do seem to have very mature taste but I point out that could just be exposure.  Still, she’s pretty on target here, there is some science that would appear to back her observation.  Unfortunately that science hasn’t always been the case in our house.  I mention that there are many nice people that were formula fed too.  She agreed.

“Are you ever embarrassed that you breastfed so long?  As you’ve gotten older and have seen more of how society acts about breasts, has it ever made you uncomfortable about how long you breastfed?”

Again I receive another looked like I’m a complete idiot.

“What?  Why?  No, that’s just dumb.  I know, I see it in the mall and online, people love boobs being all sexy but come on, we all know what they are really for even if they are being pushed up and air brushed.  Those sexy ladies with their boobs all hanging out, who cares, babies probably see them and get hungry.  They see a sexy model with her boobs out and I bet they are all ‘nurnie, I want nurnie!”

The room erupts with laughter.  I bow out of the conversation, my own 12 year old had been giving me the “stop talking to my friend” look for a little bit and it was time for me to give them their space again.  They go on to joke, strutting like awkward fashion models with their chests thrust out as they make severe faces and I’m reminded of Zoolander.  Fits of giggles as they talk in baby voices about wanting nurnies from imaginary breasts in an imaginary mall or magazine.  Then the butterfly girls flit on to another flower of a topic, deciding they need to take over the kitchen and bake something.

Toddlers are expert multitaskers at the breast.

Toddlers are expert multitaskers at the breast.

A year ago a very good friend of mine shared how she had taken her 4 kids to take a meal to another friend that had a new baby.  Her 13 year old son with her, she wondered if he felt awkward when the new mother began breastfeeding but was proud of him for acting like it was no big deal.  When she asked him about it later he shrugged in a typical 13 year old boy way and said no.  He remembers breastfeeding, he told her, it’s not a big deal.  Like our 12 year old friend, this 13 year old boy understands that feeding babies is what breasts are for.

Yet whenever breastfeeding beyond 12 months comes up in the news or in social media, people express an overwhelming concern for the mental development of these children.  It’s damaging, many commenters claim, that poor child is going to be so confused.  Once they have teeth you must stop!  Once they can talk and ask for it you have to cut them off!  Once they can eat solids, give that child a cup!  Mothers that breastfeed too long are sick, selfish, gross, perverted, and unable to let their child grow up these people usually assert.  Because they aren’t used to seeing what is actually biologically and anthropologically normal duration breastfeeding, they categorize this different choice they don’t understand as being wrong and rationalize that if it’s “wrong” it’s going to mess up the child.

In 2010 a study was released discussing the long term mental health benefits of breastfed children.  That’s right, the long term mental health benefits from extended breastfeeding.  Not mental health disadvantages, not long term sexual issues from extended breastfeeding, not long term dysfunctions from extended breastfeeding, long term mental health benefits of extended breastfeeding.  Which sure sounds like extended breastfeeding is good for the child’s mental health, not damaging.

It’s true that in society today we are conditioned to expect to see breasts in a beer commercial, on display in the windows of the mall, even bouncing around fast food chain ads before we expect to see them feeding an infant, let alone a toddler or preschooler.  Breasts have been hypersexualized to such an extent that many can’t imagine them any other way.  So I can see why people would be concerned.  But children are different, they don’t have the capacity to even understand sex and so wouldn’t think that breastfeeding was anything more than food and comfort.  Adults that say that breastfeeding is sexual are simply revealing their own hang ups and projecting on the child.  And maybe it shouldn’t be the biologically normal thing that needs to change, maybe we should focus on changing culture and take a stand against the objectification and over emphasis on the sexual nature of the female breasts so we can feed our children without fear of it being confused with pedophilia.  What would happen if we left women alone and let them make their own choices by weighing the information?  Stop telling women that the value of their bodies lies in what it can sell, stop telling women what they must or must not do with their bodies, stop telling women that they don’t have say in how they use their bodies.  If a woman wants to breastfeed until her child is 4 years old it is nobody’s business but that of the mother and that child and the evidence is in that there is no reason to believe it will cause mental health issues.

Today breastfeeding into early childhood may not be for everyone, there may be a lot of legitimate reasons not to for any given mother.  But there being a long term risks to their mental health to breastfeed into early childhood isn’t one of them.  My 12 year old was weaned from the breast earlier than any of my children.  When she was 4.5 months I gave up on my breastfeeding goals due to her severe reflux (which didn’t get better with formula, it got much, much worse) and agonizing breast pain that no doctor could identify and the only solution I was given was to wean.  After two trips to the ER because of the pain, I relented and switched her to formula.  Something that grieved me very much at the time.  Watching her hang out with her friend I acknowledged that you couldn’t tell which one was breastfed until she was 4 years and which one was breastfed until she was 4 months.  Both are happy, energetic, smart, well adjusted girls and both have loving, committed parents and neither demonstrate any mental health issues.  So my own personal experience and the research would lead me to believe that no, breastfeeding past infancy isn’t messing up our kids and I’m going to go out on a limb here and say it’s because all that love, all that connection can’t be a bad thing and I’m glad my daughter has a friend so secure and so confident that understands the natural biological function of breasts as feeding tools for babies that they can laugh together at the messages the world sends them about the female form.  If we want to look for what’s messing up kids and their view of sex and women, let’s start somewhere else.

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What about you?  Did you breastfeed long enough to remember?  Or your children?  What are your thoughts on breastfeeding beyond a year?

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Not sure about breastfeeding beyond a certain point?  That’s ok, it may not be for you.  Some women feel comfortable doing so and before you criticize them be informed as to why that might be.  These links may be helpful:

 Evidence on the long-term effects of breastfeeding systematic reviews and meta-analyses

 

Breast milk feeding and cognitive ability at 7-8 years

 

Breastfeeding past infancy fact sheet

 

Breastfeeding beyond infancy in developed countries

 

Continuing breastfeeding beyond the first year

 

The breastfeeding toddler explains

 

I’m not going to try to convince you to breastfeed your toddler

 

Toddler breastfeeding, frustration, and what keeps me going

 

Embracing Beyond

 

Unsupportive support: breastfeeding toddlers and introducing solids

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Comments

  1. Being breastfed does not mess up kids. There’s simply no logical reason why it would.

    What horrifies me about this article is that this girl is being raised to believe that formula fed kids are somehow deficient. What messes up kids is installing a ridiculous sense of superiority/inferiority over something that they did not choose – their name; their schooling; their weaning age; their socio-economic status.

    Aren’t we supposed to be raising children not to be prejudiced?

    • Hi Becca,

      Thank you for your comment. I assure you this girl is not being brought up to believe that formula fed children are somehow deficient, she came to her own conclusions about how breastfed children and formula fed children approach food and develop taste. And actually, she’s not far off. According to researchers “It seems that breastfed infants get used to small flavour changes and so they become more accepting of a variety of flavours compared to formula-fed infants.” Read more here: http://www.theguardian.com/science/2008/jul/24/humanbehaviour.foodtech

      The family of this girl is very educated and also very sensitive. A pediatrician, her mother has gone to great lengths to be well informed on breastfeeding and formula and because I’ve worked with her personally helping mothers, I know she does not hesitate to recommend formula should the need arise. There are risks associated with formula feeding but that doesn’t mean it isn’t useful. This doctor is a huge advocate for babies, one of the best pediatricians I’ve ever seen and after working with her and taking a class from her, I switched my family’s care to her and I respect her as a physician and a friend. Since you know nothing beyond what I chose to share here, you’ve made a lot of assumptions. The sort here is of a 12 year old girl, just because she said something that she came to on her own doesn’t mean she’s raised to believe that. And she knows quite a bit about prejudice, she’s black.

      ~Jessica

  2. I love this! It might be one of my favorite blogs of yours! <3 Make sure to thank your daughter's friend for her beautiful insight!!!

  3. I love reading this article. My daughter just turned 7 months old on Tuesday and we are EBF and going strong. Even though I know our society has varying views on breastfeeding, it still kind of stops me in my tracks when someone asks me “you’re still nursing her?” And it’s weird because she’s 7 months, not 17 or 27 months! She’s still a baby and to me, no question about it [even if you have a different opinion of toddler breastfeeding]…if at 7 months you can still breastfeed your baby, you SHOULD. It’s not even an age thing at that point. I plan on breastfeeding until my daughter decides she is done. Whether that be my supply ends if/when I get pregnant, if she self weans at 18 months or if she self weans at 49 months. Breastfeeding is a wonderful gift but it’s not something that goes without time and effort. I enjoy the connection that I have with my daughter but to have someone say that I’m selfish for wanting to breastfeed for an “extended” amount of time is crazy and I hope that I have the self control to hold my tongue if/when that day comes ;)

    Thank you for your support and encouragement through blogs and FB posts!

  4. I wasn’t breadtfed as a baby, in fact my whole family as long as anyone alive can remember was formula fed. My family was shocked and upset when We decided to breastfeed our children. From both my family and my husband’s family i’ve been told that i’m selfish, that i’m going to screw up my children, that my milk is making my children sick. Especially now that my little one is still going strong at breastfeeding. My first one weaned herself at about 15 months, but this one still loves the milk and being close to me. I don’t think it’s messing them up, not do i think they will really remember it when they were older. Do you hear any adults saying that they are messed up because they were weaned from the bottle way to late? To me it’s just milk, nourishment; there isn’t anything wrong with that. Thank you for your article.

    • I faced the same problem with my in-laws, though not with my own family as breastfeeding is the norm for us. I was told the same things by my in-laws as you have been told by your family and it is utter rubbish. We all make our choices in life, whether to formula feed or breast feed. I admire your strength to deal with this kind of opposition from both families and still do what you feel is best. I have no issue with formula feeding and I think both sides of this rather controversial discussion can be very aggressive in the way they are critical of those who choose an alternative path. Good for you for being strong enough to do what you feel is right.

  5. Thank you for this. This is so helpful. My own daughter is now six and still breastfeeding…this was not completely by my choice, but is something I have continued to do for her because she was so traumatized by my efforts to wean and regressed noticeably each time I would try. Thus, the continued breastfeeding. She is still SO in love with the “milk” and does indicate extreme sadness over the thought of ever having to give it up. It is delightful to hear the thoughts of a 12 year old’s journey of remembrance. This gives me hope that my own daughter will not only look back upon this time fondly but will also be able to challenge our culture’s oversexualization of the breast. I love it! I had never made that connection before.

  6. Thank you so much for sharing this. A friend sent me the link because I am currently collecting stories for a book to be published next year on breastfeeding past the third birthday (http://tothreeandbeyond.blogspot.com/p/would-you-like-to-contribute-to-this.html, recent interview at http://www.mothering.com/community/a/are-you-breastfeeding-an-older-child).

    I really appreciate your balanced view because I feel like mothers should be able to make their own decisions based on the information they have, the needs of their families, and their own comfort levels. Thanks again!

  7. Stephanie says:

    I really like this post and am currently EBF my 5 month old son. I plan on nursing him until he’s at least one and hopefully until he’s close to 2… my husband isn’t sure that’s a good idea. He doesn’t see the purpose past age 1. I was hoping the links you provided would help but… I can’t click on any. Would you let me know how I can access those so I can show him the continued value of BF past age 1? Thank you.

  8. Thank you very much for this post. I am still nursing my 4-year-old – something I never in a million years thought I’d say lol – and it’s nice not to feel like I’m coming under attack with regards to the dynamics of my relationship with my daughter =) Thank you.

  9. I love this article. My absolute favorite on BFing. I am currently nursing for the third time and want to go as long as she wants. Love that kid!

  10. Thank you for this post! My 2 year old (2 years & 9 months) still remembers breastfeeding and she weaned at 13 months. Well she went on an extended nursing strike and I hate my pump so we stopped. I know she won’t remember it much longer but she will remember me breastfeeding my son. I plan to nurse him until 3 or if he weans earlier. That was my goal for my daughter that I slowly came to in the first year; maybe my goal will change over time with my son too who knows. People then and now look at my like I have 3 heads when I tell them I won’t wean until they’re ready or I’m ready. Some have even said, “but they’ll remember.” Well maybe, maybe not. If they do I hope they are smart and well adjusted as this girl. I hope they remember the love they felt as I fed them and their sibling. I hope my daughter remembers enough to want to breastfeed her own and not let our over sexualized culture tell her her body is only as good as it looks and is otherwise repulsive. Likewise I hope my son will advocate for his wife and children if she chooses to breastfeed.

  11. Fabulous post! I’m still nursing my 3 year old. I never thought I’d be nursing a 3 year old. My goal was 12 months, then 18 months, then 2, then … whenever. Until she was 2 she just seemed like a baby and babies nurse. Now I nurse her because 1) I feel its good for her to have that reconnection time and 2) its easier than weaning. I have noticed a significant shift in how I am perceived when nursing in public in the last few months though I’ve yet to have anyone actually say anything to me. Just the looks are enough to get my goat. My hope is that she’ll remember nursing as a special bond we had and that it will encourage her to nurse any children she has. I was breastfed but I weaned at 18 months and don’t remember it. My boss breastfed her daughter until she was 3 and she (now 11) claims to not remember it. Even if my daughter doesn’t remember nursing, I’ll be confident that I gave her what was best for the both of us. I’m not sure when we’ll wean. Perhaps next week, perhaps next year, perhaps when the next baby comes along. It’ll happen when its right.

  12. I am still bf my son who is 3 in a week. Like others it is not something I ever thought I would be doing but any time I try to get him to cut down never mind wean has been a bit of a battle, he fed through my pregnancy, and am pretty sure I dried up then. I only want to wean because sadly my daughter died at 3 weeks and I don’t really fancy being pregnant and breastfeeding again, also society and family pressure come into it. But I cannot find any gentle weaning advice that works on my little boy so who knows I will probably still be breastfeeding him at 4 just more and more ‘in secret’ which makes me sad.

  13. Love this post!

    I nursed my first child until she was 3 years old and that wasn’t very common 17 years ago. I had a few friends who felt I was nursing too long but I knew my daughter was benefiting from it and that is all I needed to know. I let her decide when she was done nursing and that came naturally about at age 3.

    My second child was born 10 years later and I nursed him until he was 4 and a half. This time around I got very little discouragement from others. Maybe they learned I wouldn’t listen anyway. :)

  14. As a breastfeeding mama of 2 year old triplets, I run into extended breastfeeding criticism a lot. Thank you for helping to make it normal!

    http://growinguptriplets.com/2013/09/16/why-im-slowly-weaning-my-triplets/

  15. Have you ever had your daughter checked for tongue-tie? Dr Larry Kotlow has done a lot of research on them in the past 3-5 years and it is finallt becoming more understood. It’s a much bigger deal than the past generation of docs & LCs believed. Can cause reflux, digestive issues, thrush, dental issues, TMJ, headaches, speech issues, feeding issues (gag & texture), sensory integratiok issues, and TONS OF PAIN/nipple damage for the mom! I went through it with my son and was told over & over that he was normal, that there was nothing wrong, that I’d just have to wait it out. I finally went to Dr Kotlow himself (flew to NY from SC & back in one day). There was a night & day difference in him after the laser revision. Anyway, your daughter sounds very similar. Even sleep issues can be related (bc of how much tensioj kids have when their facial muscles are all tight. Anyway, read Dr Kotlow’s stuff & maybe you’ll get an answer for your daughter all these years later.

  16. What a lovey read :)
    I’m currently breast feeding my 17month old and baby number two is due to arrive in 4 weeks. I never imagined that we would be on this journey together for so long when I started but I’m glad we are here and happy to continue. I’m not sure to what age, sometimes I set a limit but then realise what will be will be. Well done to all mummies who breastfeed for however long!

  17. Laura Graham says:

    I loved this. I really liked the photo of the toddler picking the nose and nursing at the same time, too! :D

    I am currently tandem nursing my 4yo and my 1yo daughters. My original nursing goal was 18 months with my first daughter –I work full-time and I thought working outside the home would interfere with being able to breastfeed at least the WHO-recommended two years. Fortunately, I have supervisors who are supportive and accommodating; unfortunately, however, some of my coworkers are hypercritical of my parenting choices. But, I have science and evidence-based research on my side and never felt I needed the approval of others anyway. I weaned from the pump with my firstborn at 22 months. I never imagined I would go on to nurse through a second pregnancy and to be tandem nursing for over a year.

    Thank you for sharing the insight from a 12yo perspective. I often wonder what my 4yo will remember about our nursing relationship. When I ask her why she likes nursing so much, her answer is simple: “Because I love you.” I know she isn’t going to stop loving me, so I’m not sure how that will play into her self-weaning. I also worry about when she does decide to wean, then will that inadvertently encourage her younger sister to wean, as well? My nursing goal for my second daughter is to nurse at least two years, but I’d really like to have breastfeeding in my parenting toolbox much longer.

  18. Thanks for this article. Just yesterday my SIL said to me “have you seen those 5year olds who are still breastfed?” I quickly answered her “yes, they are lucky and my son will be one of them if I am able to provide.” We are only at 6 months but we had a rough start, but this insightful article is motivation to continue as long as we can. I even had my husband read it and he is now educated. Thank you again.

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