“He wasn’t ready to give it up yet – and neither was I,” says Clarkston mom Amy Nippa of her experience weaning her first son at 19 months. “My friends and family were just picking on me about it. Things like, ‘That kid will be nursing in high school’ and ‘What is he, a boob addict?'” There’s little question on this point: Deciding when to stop breastfeeding isn’t easy.
Yet that’s the kind of commentary a lot of breastfeeding moms endure. So, what’s the answer to that big question: When’s it time to throw in the proverbial burp cloth?
Nursing moms ask that questions themselves, wondering when is the “right” time to wean their child from the breast.
The answer, according the Southgate pediatrician Saba R. Cossor, is whenever you darn well please – to a degree.
“I don’t know when is the best time,” says Dr. Cossor. “I think it depends on how the child is feeding, whether or not they’re becoming super dependent on the breastfeeding or if they’re able to eat other foods well, and also just how comfortable the parent is with doing it.”
But from a medical standpoint, Dr. Cossor says it’s perfectly healthy to breastfeed for two years – and even longer, despite the cultural stigma she says is often attached to nursing older children. The benefits of breastfeeding also make for a compelling case to go longer.
“The breast milk is going to have the same calories no matter what point you sample it,” she says. “You can test a woman’s breast milk when the baby’s a newborn, when they’re 6 months, when they’re 12 months. There really isn’t anything about the milk that changes as the child gets older – it’s what the child is eating in addition to the milk.”
The point is that the milk still has the same nutritional value, but as the child grows up, he needs other nutrients found in other foods, as well.
Making the choice
Still, when it comes to when to stop breastfeeding, Dr. Cossor says moms who want to continue past a certain point can feel pressure to stop.
“There’s a lot of controversy about what is appropriate and what is not appropriate, and I think that part of the whole culture of breastfeeding sort of depends on the person’s family,” says Dr. Cossor.
According to Jan Cranston, a former La Leche League volunteer and group leader in Ann Arbor, mothers who continue to nurse their children as toddlers are bequeathing to them even more breast milk benefits.
“Some nutrients are there in greater quantities when the child continues to breastfeed into their second year,” she says.
Dr. Jack Newman, a lactation consultant in Toronto, Canada, agrees. He says immune factors in breast milk are present in greater amounts in the second year of life than in the first.
Word on weaning
Despite the advantages of nursing a toddler, there is often a collective cultural gasp of shock when a 2-year-old can lift mom’s shirt in search of milk.
But as long as the child is gaining weight appropriately, there’s no medical reason not to go on nursing for three or even four years, Dr. Cossor says. And for parents who’ve decided on baby-led weaning, there’s a possibility their child will choose to nurse even longer.
But for parents who chose to call it quits, she has some suggestions for mother-led weaning that don’t involve going cold turkey, like decreasing the number of feedings and changing up routines.
“Have time away from the child, so that the breast milk is no longer available to them all the time,” she says. “Or at bedtime, they can get time with mom maybe reading a book, and then dad is the one that’s in there when they’re actually falling asleep.”
For any additional questions, concerns and resources, reach out to one of the breastfeeding lactation consultants in metro Detroit or to your pediatrician. After all, busting breastfeeding myths is no small task – and that includes the misconception that all this automatically “happens naturally” in the first place.
This post was originally published in 2010 and is updated regularly.