Choosing Extended Breastfeeding

Choosing Extended Breastfeeding
When Time Magazine ran a cover of a mother nursing a four-year-old boy to promote a series of articles on attachment parenting, millions of people visually encountered extended breastfeeding for the first time. Even for those of us who nursed toddlers or preschoolers, the image of a boy standing on a chair nursing was a pretty unfamiliar image. While Time Magazine seemed to want to portray a visual representing extended breastfeeding, this very atypical image left people wondering why anyone would choose to nurse a four-year-old child. Why do mothers choose extended breastfeeding?

As a mother who nursed her first daughter for 18 months and her second daughter for more than 3 ½ years, I find that question hard to answer, because I never chose to nurse a toddler. I chose to nurse my newborn, and then she grew. While I am sure that there are some mothers out there who know they want to nurse for years, it never appealed to me. When I saw mothers nursing toddlers at La Leche League meetings, I couldn’t imagine myself doing it personally. I knew that children that age had other nutritional options, and the children just looked so big and independent – it seemed unnecessary.

But the truth is that extended breastfeeding has to be a mutual choice between mother and nursling. Mothers can’t alone choose to breastfeed if the child isn’t interested (which is why my first weaned at 18 months), and many mothers find themselves willing to continue if her child expresses the intent. For many, perhaps most mothers who breastfeed past a year, they are excited to pass that milestone but then don’t really have a plan. There is no switch that flips on a child’s one-year birthday. Weaning is a process that takes weeks or months, and mothers without a specific need to stop may find themselves continuing by default.

And while an unknown toddler at a meeting may look so old, when you watch a baby grow, day-by-day, and they curl up in your lap, and you look into those same beautiful eyes that looked up at you hours old, it just doesn’t feel any different. Nursing a two-year old isn’t a decision you make on a child’s first birthday. First you nurse a one-year-one-day-old child, then a one-year-two-day-old child and before you know it, time has passed. But each day nursing is still just one more day that doesn’t seem any more monumental than it did the day before. Because older children nurse so much more infrequently then newborns, often down to four or even less times a day beyond a year, continuing to nurse just isn’t as the challenge mothers imagine when they are nursing a newborn round the clock.

In this way, many mothers don’t choose extended breastfeeding – it chooses them. When children do eventually wean, it may be later than expected, but like so many parts of childhood fades so quickly into memory in favor of new and exciting stages and adventures. Just recently, my now-5-year-old has been very interested in talking about her time nursing. She likes to tell about how we started nursing right away, and how we would lay in bed nursing together. She told me musingly that she can’t remember what her mouth felt like to nurse anymore, even though she remembers doing it, which made my heart melt (and break just a little bit).

Even though it’s only been two years, and she nursed for 3 1/2, it feels like a lifetime ago and it’s hard to remember how never-ending it felt. And that child who probably looked so old to others at three looks so small compared to my almost-Kindergartner. I wouldn’t take back a single day of our nursing relationship and am so glad that she remembers and appreciates that choice as much as I do.


If you are contemplating what is right for you and your child, take a look at La Leche League's "Mothering Your Nursing Toddler." I've enjoyed this book both for reference and for emotional support.

Disclaimer: All material on the Breastfeeding website is provided for educational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. Although every effort is made to provide accurate and up-to-date information as of the date of publication, the author is neither a medical doctor, health practitioner, nor a Certified Lactation Consultant. If you are concerned about your health, or that of your child, consult with your health care provider regarding the advisability of any opinions or recommendations with respect to your individual situation. Information obtained from the Internet can never take the place of a personal consultation with a licensed health care provider, and neither the author nor assume any legal responsibility to update the information contained on this site or for any inaccurate or incorrect information contained on this site, and do not accept any responsibility for any decisions you may make as a result of the information contained on this site or in any referenced or linked materials written by others.

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