Why Would You Breastfeed a Child Who’s Old Enough to Ask for It?

Photography: Georgia Russell

By Annie Reneau

Twelve years ago, when our first kid was a toddler, we had a childless couple over for dinner. We were chatting in the living room when our adorable almost-3-year-old walked up, leaned her elbow on the arm of my chair, and dropped a verbal bomb. Just two little words (well, three, technically), and she said them so nonchalantly – as if she were casually offering me a cookie – that I almost spat my water across the room.

“Wanna nurse?”

I watched our friends’ jaws hit the floor, then I broke the shocked silence with my own laughter. “No, thanks,” I said. “Maybe later.” Thankfully, our cherub was content with that response and skipped off happily.

“Did she just say what I think she said?” our friend asked.

Yep, she did.

All three of our kids nursed until shortly after age 3. It was unusual for our daughter to have asked at that time- we’d pretty much cut out nursing other than at bedtime and first thing in the morning by that point. But we were still working on weaning, and what our friends witnessed was part of that process. Thankfully, they laughed along with me, but I’m sure that hearing a walking, talking child ask to nurse is quite a reality to take in if it’s not something you’re used to.

Since lots of opinions (and judgments) get tossed around anytime this topic comes up, first let me tell you ten reasons we didn’t nurse through toddlerhood:

  1. To make people uncomfortable.
  2. To make a statement and/or prove a point.
  3. I’m perversely attached to breastfeeding – or just a pervert in general.
  4. I’m insecure and looking for attention.
  5. I need my children to need me.
  6. I think I’m a superior mother.
  7. I don’t know how to say “no.”
  8. I don’t want my children to grow up.
  9. I’m too lazy to feed them real food.
  10. I want a trophy.

Those are some of the most common motivations I’ve seen attributed to moms who breastfeed their kids longer than whoever-is-commenting finds acceptable, but none of them are true for me. (Well, #8 is true, but that has nothing to do with breastfeeding.)

Here are ten real reasons we nursed through toddlerhood:

1) Comfort. 
Nursing was our toddlers’ primary source of comfort, as it had been since birth. Some toddlers have pacifiers, some have blankies, some have nursing. I loved that there was nothing nursing couldn’t fix. We didn’t have “terrible twos” with any of our kids, and I attribute a lot of that to the fact that they hadn’t fully weaned yet. Toddlers need comfort and connection as they explore their burgeoning independence. Obviously, there are ways to comfort and connect besides nursing, but it worked well for us. I was thankful for that easy, familiar source of comfort for them.

2) Nutrition. 
Breastmilk doesn’t suddenly lose its nutritional value. In fact, it doesn’t even gradually lose its nutritional value. Clearly, as kids grow, they need more than just milk, but it remains a healthy source of protein, fats, and vitamins as long as they continue. There’s no reason to switch to cow’s milk at one year of age, if both baby and mom are cool with continuing to breastfeed. When you think about it, cow’s milk is the breastmilk of a cow – it doesn’t really make sense that it would be preferable nutritionally to human breastmilk. That doesn’t mean that children should continue to breastfeed forever, but it does mean that there’s no reason to cut them off at some arbitrary number of months or years.

When you think about it, cow’s milk is the breastmilk of a cow – it doesn’t really make sense that it would be preferable nutritionally to human breastmilk.

3) Money. 
Breastmilk costs exactly nothing. I didn’t see a reason to spend money on cow’s milk or some other milk alternative when nutritional milk was readily available at all times for free.

4) Convenience. 
If your nursing toddler asks for milk, you don’t even have to get off the couch. (Maybe there is something to that “lazy” thing after all.) Seriously, though, it’s like carrying a cooler of sippy cups around with you at all times. So convenient.

5) Research. 
My mom is a lactation consultant. I grew up immersed in the benefits of breastfeeding. Even so, I read a lot when I had my first baby. There is a lot of research that supports extended breastfeeding, and zero research showing that it does any harm. Anthropologist Kathy Dettwyler estimates that, based on comparable mammalian weaning factors, the natural weaning age for humans is between 2.5 and 7 years.

1 Comment

  • Were you able to get pregnant while nursing? That’s the only reason why I would stop nursing; to have children closer together.

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