When your older, weaned child asks to breastfeed

by Jessica Martin-Weber

Today my 4 year old Smunchie who hasn’t breastfed in quite some time, asked for bobbies.  She hadn’t been feeling well all day and though it had been a while since she had breastfed, it was obvious that she found even the idea comforting.  Her eyes wide and a seriousness about her, she implored for some mama milk.  I offered to try to express some into a cup for her and the tiny bit of hope in her face dropped as she said ok but she really wanted to try to get the milk herself.  Without missing a beat, her two year old little sister rushed over, hands out, and screamed “my bobbies!”

Yes, my children were fighting over my boobs.

I gently reminded 2 year old Sugarbaby that they were my bobbies but that I share them and decided to invite both girls to cuddle up to nurse.

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I expect this post will make some people uncomfortable but we need to talk about it anyway.

Sometimes, older, weaned children will ask to breastfeed.  Whether it be a new baby added to the family or just what seems a random interest, it’s not unusual for a child to see breastfeeding and want to give it a try.  They may be quite insistent or perhaps shy and act embarrassed.  It may come when you’re sitting there feeding their younger sibling or when they get a moment alone with you.  There is a possibility that they are more than a little curious and will want to re-establish a breastfeeding relationship.

Before you freak out (probably too late), keep in mind that children don’t have a developed sense of sexuality or even what makes something sexual.  Unless the child is more like a teenager, the interest in breastfeeding has more to do with curiosity than sexual confusion.  Even though adults in much of westernized society place a heavy emphasis on the sexual function of the female breasts over the nutritional and nurturing functions, children just don’t see it that way so you can take a deep breath and know that there is nothing wrong with your child, they’re just a normal child with normal curiosity.  Breasts are another body part made intriguing by the fact that children have yet to develop breasts themselves and if a child encounters breastfeeding and had it explained to them without shame, they are going to understand breasts as a food source rather than identifying breasts for sexual pleasure.  Please note: gender identity, the differences between the sexes, perceived gender roles, attachment, emotional bonds, body autonomy, and understanding appropriate touching is developing from infancy.

And no, feeding children well past infancy into early childhood is not messing them up.  You don’t have to worry about psychological damage from breastfeeding past one or two years old.  That myth has totally been debunked both through scientific research and anecdotally by many older children and adults that remember breastfeeding at such an age.  Read one such account from an outspoken 12 year old who breastfed until she was 4.

If their sexual awareness has yet to develop, they don’t yet buy into society’s emphasis on female breasts primarily as sex objects, and it’s not messing kids up to breastfeed well beyond the 1st year of life, how should we respond?

With patience.  With love.  With acceptance.  With gentleness.  Without shame.  Without fear.  Without judgment.

As is often the case, the manner with which we respond to our children is more important than what we actually do.  If your older, weaned child asks to breastfeed, saying yes or no is less important than how you say it.  Before you respond, ask yourself what your reaction could be communicating to your child.  Is it loving?  Does it communicate acceptance? Or is it expressing shock and disgust?  Could they confuse your response as a rejection of them?  That they did something wrong?  That breastfeeding is shameful?

What should you do if your older, weaned child asks to breastfeed?  I have no idea.  Whatever is right for you.  I would just encourage you not to rush your decision, take a moment and reflect on why or why not you may be comfortable with that.  With older children, a conversation is usually possible and a reasonable place to start.  Involving them in a conversation as part of your decision making could be a bonding experience for you both.

Your decision is completely up to you and your personal boundaries.  If you’re not comfortable letting your older, weaned child breastfeed then don’t.  If you think you may be ok with it, then let them.  Your boundaries and modeling bodily autonomy is important too and an older child is capable of understanding such boundaries.  If you decide you’re comfortable with it and even want to encourage them to relearn how to properly latch (yes, that is an option) and that works for both of you, that can be significant journey as well.  Whatever you decide, just do so gently and you’ll both be fine.

My two eldest children never expressed an interest in breastfeeding once they weaned, not even when siblings were born.  Curiosity and copying with their own babies (dolls), absolutely, but they were never interested in trying to breastfeed for themselves.  Since then though I’ve had each of my 4 younger ones ask to try.  It weirded me out at first and I refused but that particular child began to ask repeatedly every time I sat to feed her younger sister and eventually I decided I didn’t actually have a good reason not to.  Having such a large child at my breast (she was 4) seemed strange to me but it only took one try and then a polite thank you with a hug to make me realize that was about my issues and what I considered normal than it was about somehow being wrong.  She did enjoy having my milk in a cup for months afterward though and that was something that meant a lot to her.  The most common reaction my children have is to have no idea what to do at the breast, attempt a couple of sucks, giggle, pull away, and inform me they aren’t babies any more and “bobbies are for babies.”  Sometimes they do get milk and don’t like the taste.  Even if they are interested in trying again, once their curiosity was satisfied they were happy to move on and leave breastfeeding to babies.

But that’s not what has happened with my current 4 year old.  She returns every so often to the breast, has even figured out that if she can get her little sister to start on one breast and then switch after let down, it’s easier for her and she’ll get more milk.  It doesn’t happen often, increasingly less and less, but she does still ask from time to time.  This time, after latching and not getting any milk, she decided she was good with just a cuddle.

“I like your milk, mommy, but I like your cuddles best.”

For us, it was worth letting her try.

breastfeeding the weaned child

 

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What do you think you would do if your previously weaned child asked to breastfeed again?

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Comments

  1. My oldest asked to nurse after her younger sister was born, she was almost 4 and hadn’t been weaned very long (just a few months). I knew I didn’t want to tandem nurse, and I wasn’t sure what would come of it, but I didn’t have a real reason to deny her. She crawled up into my lap and sucked like a straw. I jumped and gasped, and she realized she had no idea what she was doing anymore.

    When the same thing happened with my 2nd, after the birth of my 3rd, I did let her try as well, but she climbed into my lap and then just looked at my breast. Confused.

    My 3rd was down to nursing 3x/day during my pregnancy with my 4th, and since his younger sister was born he has been keeping par with the newborn. While it can be quite trying to have two kids constantly on me while two others need my attention, I know I’m doing the best I can to meet my kids needs. Physical and Emotional.

  2. My oldest is just 2.5 and when baby sister came along she displayed some curiosity. She started breastfeeding her babies and telling me sissy needed booby whenever she cried. So, recently when she got sick and was crying from not feeling good she asked me for some booby. Actually she insisted on booby. I didn’t even think I just said sure come on up. She climbed in my lap and looked at them and said nah that’s for babies momma. End of story. I’ve given her some in a cup to try and she said EW mom that’s not milk! Haha

  3. Psychsarah says:

    Thank you for this post-so honest and reassuring! My son was 2.5 yrs when my daughter was born. He weaned about a month before she was born, but asked a couple of times after her birth. I had mentally prepared to tandem nurse, and let him try a couple of times when he asked, but he had completely forgotten how to latch and wasn’t interested at all after trying. I offered snuggles instead and he was happy with this. It just seemed like he was figuring out his place now that there was a new baby taking my attention. For me, it was important for him to know he could nurse if he wanted to. I think it would have made him feel rejected and displaced if he had not had the chance to try.

  4. I had a similar experience when my third baby was born. My three-year-old wanted to try to nurse as well, though she self-weaned at about 16 months. It was much like you described some of your other children, she gave it a try but no longer knew how to latch and suck correctly, so didn’t last long. Her interested was sated and she didn’t ask again.

  5. We anticipated the possibility, since DS1 was only 21mos when DS2 was born. He had weaned himself at 16mos, but our midwife made sure we were at least thinking about it and what our answer/reaction may be. I did, and still, have no desire to tandem nurse, but it was something to think about. DS2 is now almost a year, and while DS1 still gets mommy milk mixed with his regular milk sometimes (we call it “boosted milk”), he has never requested to try nursing. I’m still not entirely sure how I would react, were he to ask, but since we did have the question posed to us while pregnant, we at least knew how we didn’t want to respond (mockingly or harshly).

  6. Brittany Jimenez says:

    My two year old has become increasingly interested in my breast and I haven’t breastfed since he was 3 1/2 months old, so I know it’s not something he remembers. Sometimes he just likes to rub his face on them during cuddles and other times, when my shirt is off, I see him contemplating something and his little fingers grab for a breast. I tell him gently that it sometimes hurts when he pinches and to please stop or I tell him when he was a little baby that I fed him with my breast. That mommy used to make milk with them. He knows what milk is, but I’m not sure if he understands what I say.

    I don’t really know how I’d feel if he tried to latch. Sometimes I think, even wish, that he might want to dry nurse, but then I don’t know how I’d feel if he wanted to do it out in public. Not for my sake, but for his. I don’t want him to feel embarrassed or shamed for something so innocent and natural. Then again, like you stated above, what matters most is our reaction.

  7. My first daughter got abruptly weaned at 17 months when I was hit by a car and not available. The meds dried up my milk but when I stopped taking them it came back. She tried to relearn and couldn’t. Then tried four months after that when she had a fever. Now she is three and started again because her sister was born. Usually just at nap or when she is feeling overwhelmed. It makes me overflow with happiness due to her tragic weaning process.

  8. erickajen says:

    I wish this had been around a year ago. My daughter is almost 14 months old now but my son who was 6 when she was born had asked/acted like nursing. He nursed until 20 months and says he still remembers (he has a good memory for other things too). But I kinda wasn’t sure what to do and everywhere I looked al I found said it had been too long since he weaned for it to be a good idea or whatever.

    I like this perspective better but I think I needed to be more mindful of when he did it as a sign of needing that kind of snuggly attention.

  9. Christina says:

    My daughter is 2 1/2. I’m not having anymore babies. I missed her until she was 18 months old. I would really like to start nursing again but I don’t know I’d she’d catch on again and off I would be able to get my supplies going again. I currently still produce a colostrum and some white milk but it doesn’t stream out.
    My question is: how do I turn that colostrum into milk again?

  10. Perfect timing for this article. My son just asked me this morning to “have some booby milk from the boob” My son is four and my daughter is 17 months, breastfeeding is nothing new in our house so I was a little surprised that he asked, but I feel inclined to let him.

  11. BigMamaCass says:

    I have a 6 year old and a 2.5 year old and expecting in January. My 2 year old weaned in November and since I’ve gotten pregnant has been asking a lot to nurse again. I always let him try and he sees there is no milk left. He still knows how to latch without trouble so I am surprised about all the above comments who say their kids forgot how to latch after short periods of time. I am wondering if he is going to continue asking after the new baby comes. If so my only concern is 1) I don’t know if it is safe to take colostrum at his age and/or away from the new baby… Isn’t there only a certain amount of colostrum before milk comes? 2) if he nurses once milk comes will my body know to make enough for both of them? I don’t want to take milk from the new baby that she needs.

    Any input you have would be great. I plan to talk to my lactation consultant about it eventually but I haven’t gotten that far yet.

    • hey BigMamaCass, I currently tandem nurse my baby and 2yo. The older child I think doesn’t get as much milk as the baby. But I am concerned about having enough milk that the baby will get enough and making sure she gets enough fore milk and hind milk. So far the baby is growing and thriving with enough wet diapers, so I assume everything’s ok. I also wonder if I’d have more energy and less “mom brain” if I were only nursing one child. I’m curious how it’s going for you, and if your lactation specialist had any wisdom to share. Thanks!
      Kara

    • Don’t worry! You’ll produce plenty of colostrum and it’s great for the older kiddo too. And your supply is based on demand and will adjust to the need:)

  12. I’m so happy I found this! My 2.5 year old asked to Nurse last night and I let her for a bit. If she needs it I will nourish her!

  13. I am expecting and have been explaining to my just turned 4 year old that breast is best and I will be breastfeeding when our baby comes. I have included my little lady in the pregnancy and we talk in an age related way about most things. She has always seem my boobs as comfort and as her comfort but tonight she tried to feed I was surprise and simply told her I have no milk unti baby is here.
    I glad to have found this blog as I was worried as o have no one to talk about breastfeeding and what happens next.

    Breast is best xx

  14. My four year old son breastfed until right after two. He has asked to nurse a few times since then, usually when we are naked in the tub or hot tub. I let him try to nurse (I have not a drop anymore as he is my last) because I don’t want him to think there is any shame in asking, and I think it reminds him of wonderful comfort with mom. It lasts 5 seconds at best and he goes right back to all the typical 4 yr old shenanigans. He doesn’t seem to treat my breasts as anything sexual, although he loves them, grabs them with both hands and says, “boobies!” At times. I still don’t think this is wrong (as long as he doesn’t do it to anyone else!) Figuring this out with older kids can be tough, but it also is okay for us. I’m happy to read someone posting about this issue! Thanks, Jessica!

  15. I weaned my daughter while pregnant with #2 because my body couldn’t keep up with producing milk while pregnant, and because I didn’t want to tandem nurse. After baby was born when she was 22 months, she was curious so I let her try. At first she didn’t remember how to latch, and was surprised when she first got milk. She has relearned how to nurse and wants to every time the baby nurses, as well as when she goes to bed and wakes up. I was ok with it because it eased her jealousy, but she has become demanding about it and is no longer sleeping through the night, she wants to nurse in the middle of the night. I’ve tried a few things to get her to cut back or stop, not always in the gentlest manner, and I think her feelings have been hurt. I am not ashamed or feel there’s anything wrong with a 2 year old nursing, I am just overwhelmed and want her to sleep better. This post reminded me that I can set my own boundaries lovingly. Now I just need to find a way to explain lovingly to her that she can nurse sometimes but I need to be able to determine when those times are.

  16. Chan Schauer says:

    This was so wonderful to read! My son will be 4 years old in a couple of weeks, and recently self weaned about six months ago. Every once in a while he’ll want to try to nurse, but he has forgotten how. He tried to suck like a straw and say, “I don’t knkw how” or “There’s no more milk, mama.” 🙁 I tell him that it was there for him for as long as he needed it, but now we can always snuggle close whenever he wants. He loves skin to skin, especially if he’s tired, sick or has a boo boo. I would never say no to that. They grow up so quickly. I treasure the close bond we have and hope he always remembers it. Thank you for sharing something so special. <3

  17. Did she remember how? My son who I weaned at almost three will try every now and again when his brother is nursing, but he doesn’t remember what to do. It’s kinda funny.

  18. My 5 year old son (who I weaned at 2 1/2 years) started to be curious after I told him about my new pregnancy he began to question if I would give the baby my milk the way I did for him, yes I explained it to him then my sister had her baby a few weeks ago and is breast feeding and lately he has been coming up to me when we are by ourselfs (he doesn’t do this when daddy’s home or around anyone) he pulls on my shirt or feels my chest or sometimes just stares he doesn’t try to suckle just more feels me I’m not sure why could it be jealousy? From the new found pregnancy? Or from seeing my sister breastfeed? I don’t try to scare him or shame him I just tell him mommy has no milk for him I’m saving it for the baby because he’s a big boy now who drinks regular milk. Is this behaviour normal and should I be concerned?

  19. Thank you so much for writing this!! My four year old occasionally will ask to nurse, and we abruptly weaned around 18 months, when I was pregnant with his brother. I am a survivor of sexual abuse and so I try to be really careful with body autonomy and sexuality. I wasn’t sure if it would be appropriate to nurse him, especially because I haven’t produced any milk for a while. I went ahead and let him comfort nurse and he was so happy. I always felt bad that we stopped nursing so abruptly when knew he wanted to keep nursing. Now I can still provide him with that comfort on occasion. Thanks for clarifying that this is definitely not sexual, and perfectly normal, because I was worried.

  20. I came looking for reassurance and found this post. Thank you. My 3.5 year old asked to try when her little sister was born in July, I let her as I didn’t want her to be jealous of the new addition. She had self weaned at 2.5 years. A few sucks and she stopped and gave me a hug. She asked again today (little one is now 4 months), and had a few sips. She has a very good latch even though she hasn’t fed for a year!! She asked again this evening and she had a few more sips. Promptly told me it tasted like strawberries! I wasn’t sure whether letting her was the right thing to do but it felt natural. I am so glad I did as I would of hated how it would have made her feel if I had rejected her. Just going to go with it if she asks again…although not sure how my family and friends will respond if they are are around if she asks again!!

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