Too Old to Nurse?
From: NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 12 No. 6, November-December 1995, pp. 183-85
We provide articles from our publications from previous years for reference for our Leaders and members. Readers are cautioned to remember that research and medical information change over time.
"Toddler Tips" is a regular feature of the magazine NEW BEGINNINGS, published bimonthly by La Leche League International. In this column, suggestions are offered by readers of NEW BEGINNINGS to help parents of toddlers. Various points of view are presented. Not all of the information may be pertinent to your family's life-style. This information is general in nature, and not intended to be advice, medical or otherwise.
My three-year-old daughter still loves to nurse. She is a very active, challenging child, and nursing seems to bring her such peace and makes her much easier to handle. My husband says she is much too old to nurse, and that I should wean her immediately: I am honestly concerned that she will become totally unmanageable. Can you help?
My Cheyenne loved to nurse—morning, noon, and night. Like your daughter, she is very active. Her only time to slow down was when she would climb into the comforts of a great nursing session. I was worried that the time to stop nursing would never come, but it happened when Cheyenne was about three-and-a-half years old. At this time, my milk supply decreased dramatically. Cheyenne was heartbroken, and so were my husband and I because we no longer had the calming tool that we had become so accustomed to. Instead we developed a special time of reading together. This allowed Cheyenne to have a quiet time in the comfort of her mother's arms. We also snuggled together and talked about the times when she used to nurse. At nearly four years old, Cheyenne understands that though the milk is no longer available, there will always be time for comforting in her mother's lap.
Stanton CA USA
My daughter, Melissa, is two-and-a-half years old, and also a "challenging child." She nurses frequently, sometimes for her sake and sometimes for mine. I understand perfectly your concern that without nursing to calm her, she may become hard to manage. For help with Melissa's behavior, I turned to Mary Sheedy Kurcinka's book, Raising Your Spirited Child. The first time I picked up this book, I felt as if somebody finally understood and could put a name on it—temperament. Although the book does not deal specifically with the issue of toddler nursing, it helped me figure out strategies that would make life easier.
As for the issue of nursing, I continually ask myself and my husband, "Would situation X be any easier if this child was weaned?" The answer is almost always "no." But it is important to acknowledge your husband's concern and to let him know that you recognize that he only wants what is best for your daughter. Try to discuss the situation calmly, even though you may be angry at him for what seems like a lack of support. It is likely that he is getting negative comments from others that are making him uncomfortable. It may help him to hear that his support and encouragement are crucial to you at this time. He may not realize how much nursing means to both you and your daughter.
Keep in mind (and remind your husband) that nursing does not go on forever. As soon as your child is capable of weaning, she will do so. You can actively encourage progress by setting limits (where and when), substituting other things (a cup of juice), and providing plenty of undivided attention (no folding laundry or taking phone calls). Ask your daughter what she would like to do today. You may be surprised by how creative her answers can be!
Concord, CA, USA
When my daughter, K, was almost three years old, I decided to wean her. It was by far the worst decision I ever made. K, like your daughter, is also very challenging. But our nursing relationship would soothe her and seemed to keep her grounded. She was only nursing at night to go to sleep and once or twice in the middle of the night. I, too, felt that she was too old to nurse. I thought it was too much trouble to nurse her and that it would be easier if she weaned. I cut her off cold turkey. She screamed and cried for hours for several nights. After that, she would wake up every night several times crying. She would say things like, "I'm so sad that I can't nurse" and "My heart is broken because I can't have nummies." My heart was broken, too, but I continued with this program. K had been entirely potty-trained, including nighttime, for three months; she immediately regressed when I weaned her. She began taking a bottle at night (so I was changing her diaper five to six times per night). She began having nightmares. This was definitely not easier than nursing!
It's been five months since that awful time that I weaned her so abruptly, and she is just now starting to potty train again; she still takes a bottle (just one in the middle of the night now); she still has nightmares.
The challenging child naturally demands more but also has a better chance of having needs met than a less challenging child might. Listen to your daughter and maybe give her a nudge toward weaning, but if she doesn't give in easily, she is not ready. You will resent your husband if you do something that your child is not ready for just to please him.
If she seems too old to nurse to your husband, then she will also seem too old to do the things that will take the place of nursing. So why not choose the comforting tool that has worked so well up to this point?
I, too, have a three-year-old who needs to nurse, and from my observations and conversations with other mothers, it is not that uncommon for toddlers to continue to nurse when allowed to wean naturally.
I urge you to obtain the book BECOMING A FATHER by Dr. William Sears for your husband. Dr. Sears is a strong proponent for breastfeeding and discusses natural weaning in a way that fathers can understand.
Tucson, AZ, USA
My son Jacob nursed until shortly before his fifth birthday. Towards the end it was only once a day (at night before he went to sleep), but even so, it was important to him, and I found it an invaluable tool for making mothering easier. The year Jacob was three was more challenging than when he was two— can't imagine weaning him then! It would have been traumatic for both of us. My advice is to continue to nurse your daughter until she is fully ready to wean on her own. In other cultures, nursing is the norm. Your daughter is one of the lucky ones, to still be nursing! I see mothers trying to calm and comfort their children with bottles, blankets, stuffed animals, but for Jacob, nursing always worked like magic.
Elkins Park, PA, USA
My son, Jackson, is three years, eight months old, and still enjoys "nursey," too. Although three years is not a common age for children in the United States to nurse, it has been the norm for you and your daughter, as it has been for us. Abruptly weaning her when she continues to love nursing (and you are reaping benefits as well!) could be a decision that does not serve either of you well.
This is a challenging stage of life for children. Their verbal skills are developing, but a child this age still cannot fully express his or her needs or feelings. With nursing, no words are necessary. Nursing allows both the child and mother to take some time-out to regroup and reconnect. I have found nursing to be an invaluable parenting tool, especially on those trying days when my patience is thin.
It may be hard for your husband to understand why a three-year-old needs to nurse or why a mother needs to use whatever is at her disposal to cope with a nonstop bundle of energy. Perhaps if you express to him that continuing to nurse is in the family's best interest (Happy child + happy mom + happy dad = happy family), he'll come around to accepting individual needs. Also, tell him that no child nurses forever and that soon your child will move away from nursing more and more. I can attest to that. You didn't mention if your husband is receiving outside pressure from family or friends about the fact that his three-year-old is still nursing. If so, you may want to consider sharing this information only with those who understand and are supportive.
You have come this far and a "mutual agreement" between you and your daughter would be a nice way to end your relationship as a nursing couple. I know it can be a challenge to nurse for an extended period of time, and I admire you for your efforts. This time with our little ones passes all too quickly and if you can provide peace and joy in your child's life today, she will benefit greatly for many years to come.
Austin, TX, USA
My daughter, Stephanie, turned three last September. I never imagined that she would nurse beyond the first year! I, too, have found that I do not receive much support from family and friends for my decision to allow Stephanie to wean herself. I also appreciate that nursing a toddler is quite different than nursing an infant. Stephanie asks for her "milkies" and often tries to nurse, even in public!
Breast milk contains high levels of the amino acid L-tryptophan, which has a calming or sedative effect on a child. Also, nursing stimulates the production of prolactin, which has a calming effect on the mother! Since I, too, have a "high spirited" child, I feel both mother and child benefit when a toddler nurses her way through the "tumultuous twos."
While I encourage Stephanie to drink juice, water, and other beverages, I respect her desire to continue breastfeeding. At two-and-a-half, I began to tell Stephanie that "milkies" are for nap time, or bedtime, if she wanted to nurse during the day. If she insisted, I let her nurse, but as time went on, she nursed less during the day. I have recently detected signs that Stephanie may be gradually weaning herself.
I found the recent article in NEW BEGINNINGS on the age of weaning in other mammals to be quite enlightening. The age of weaning should be determined by the needs of mother and child, and not imposed by others. I hope you find support in hearing from another mother who is nursing a three-year-old. I encourage you to work this through with your husband, so that you may be united in this and countless other decisions you will face together as your daughter matures.
Exeter, NH, USA
When my older son was three and still nursing, my husband, Lon, started to wonder just when this child would wean. He would tease Kris, not in a mean or judgmental way, but by saying things such as Kris was "too old for nummies." This didn't stop Kris from nursing, but he didn't know how to answer. So I taught him to say "Too old for rock 'n roll." Lon, who was approaching his fortieth birthday, just about died laughing.
I think that some tension between mothers and fathers over weaning is natural. As Tine Thevenin points out in her book, Mothering and Fathering, fathers are more concerned with helping a child achieve independence, while mothers are more willing to nurture the baby still present inside a growing toddler or preschooler. Mothers and fathers are different, and both views can, and should, exist in the same family. After all, your three-year-old experiences the same conflict within herself—wanting at times to be grown up, to have the world (and herself) under control, and at other times needing the comfort of mother's arms and breast to feel safe and secure.
Perhaps your husband would feel more comfortable about your daughter's continued nursing if you helped him to see all the ways in which she is growing older and more mature, even as she continues to nurse. Focusing on the nursing, unusual for three-year-olds in this culture, may prevent him—and you, too—from seeing all the ways in which your little girl is growing up. It may also be time to start talking as a family about how someday your daughter will decide she's through nursing and to have some special "daddy-daughter" time away from mother. If your husband sees you on the road to weaning, he may be more accepting. Also give him lots of reassurance, support, and attention: inside every grown up man, there's a little boy that needs nurturing.
Oak Park, IL, USA