Breastfeeding: Is There Ever Too Much of a Good Thing?

Dear Mr. Dad: My wife continues to breastfeed our two-year-old daughter even though she’s old enough to eat “real” food. I don’t have a problem with this, but some of our friends and even some coworkers are shocked that she’s still breastfeding. Is there a specific age at which you should stop breastfeeding? Are we committing some sort of social faux pas by trying to do right by our daughter?

A: Oh, boy, are you going to cause a firestorm. Deciding whether to breastfeed a baby and for how long, is something only the parents can decide. But, as you’ve noticed, a lot of people have strong opinions on the topic and they’re not afraid to share them—whether you want to hear them or not.

Let’s start with some background. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that, barring any medical problem, babies get nothing but breast milk for the first six months. Then it’s “as long as mutually desired by the mother and child.” Many pediatricians suggest that starting at six months, parents should gradually introduce appropriate food and simultaneously decrease breastfeeding. At the end of a year, most babies will be weaned. But there is absolutely nothing wrong with having a child nurse for longer than that—as long as you understand that the kind of nutrition if provides is mostly emotional.

What’s so great about breastfeeding? First of all, aside from being free, breast milk almost magically adapts to your baby’s changing nutritional needs. Breast milk helps boost the baby’s immune system, reduces the risk of developing allergies, asthma, pneumonia, ear infections, and tooth decay, reduces the risk of becoming obese. It may also increase IQ and cut the risk of developing ADHD later.

Breastfeeding is good for mom too, encouraging her bond with her new baby, reducing her risk of depression, and helping her lose weight after the birth. Longer term, it may reduce her risk of developing breast- or ovarian cancers.

So when is enough really enough? One approach that’s becoming more popular is to give the child a vote. The idea is that your daughter will stop wanting to breastfeed when she’s ready to take that big step towards independence. This kind of “child-led” method works pretty well with potty training (the truth is that most kids will graduate to big-kid underwear only when they’re good and ready). And it works moderately well with solo sleeping (many kids make the decision to stop sleeping with mommy and daddy and move into the big-kid bed).

But letting your child run the show can be risky, since your definition of when’s a good time to stop nursing (or wearing diapers or sleeping in your bed) may be different than hers.

It sounds, though, like you’re less concerned about your daughter’s age than you are about the reaction from your friends, family, coworkers, and probably even strangers. Unfortunately, that’s not going to change anytime soon. So the only thing you can do short of never allowing your daughter to nurse around other people is to control how you respond to their comments and smirks. (Don’t you wish you could just slap people sometimes? Of course, I’d never recommend that). One thing you might try is to tell your critics about some of the many advantages of breastfeeding that I outlined above. But don’t get your hopes up. Bottom line: There’s nothing inherently inappropriate about having a two-year-old breastfeed. As her parents, how long that goes on is your decision. Everyone else will just have to live with it.