Why Would You Nurse a 4-Year-Old?

You may be expecting a snarky blog post aimed at critics of “extended” breastfeeding filled with awesome comebacks to sling around comment threads of breastfeeding posts. But I have written enough of those. A recent conversation in a thread on my own page reminded me that some people just… don’t get it. Some people just really don’t know why someone would breastfeed a toddler. They ask, “But doesn’t he eat food? Drink regular milk? Isn’t he too busy playing?” This post is dedicated to all of the people who want to know more about this. The people who ask questions, hold back judgement and have an open mind to listen to someone else’s experiences.

Abby Theuring, The Badass breastfeeder breastfeeding her toddler.

I can’t tell you why everyone nurses a toddler, but I can tell you why I personally breastfeed my 4-year-old. I didn’t plan to breastfeed Jack this long. If someone had asked me when he was born about breastfeeding a 4-year-old I would have said that was weird and gross. Now that I am here I can say that it is a lot of things, but it is not weird to us and it is not gross to us.

To answer your questions: Yes, Jack does eat food. He eats everything that you and I eat. He eats at every meal and has a zillion snacks throughout the day. He doesn’t however, drink regular milk, if by “regular” you mean cow’s milk, then, no. But it’s not because I won’t let him or have some “beef” with cows. (Get it? Beef?) I have offered it and he just doesn’t like it. I have offered every kind of milk and he’s not into it. Is that because he’s breastfed? I doubt it, I think he’s just Jack and picky about every damn thing. He drinks tons of water and some juice. I don’t feel any need to cut him off from human milk to provide milk from another source.

Abby Theuring, The Badass Breastfeeder, tandem breastfeeding.

Jack also plays. I mean try and stop a 4-year-old from playing, right? Jack does not spend all of his day lying on my lap nursing. Neither he or I want to have anything to do with all that. Nursing for Jack has taken many forms over the past 4 years. As an infant it obviously met all of his needs; nutrition, comfort, security, attachment, etc. As he has grown so has his world and he has begun to get some of these needs met in other ways. Certainly nutrition is mainly through solid foods these days, but don’t believe the hype; breastmilk does not lose nutritional value. Ever. Jack’s means of meeting his need for comfort, security and attachment have also grown as any other child’s would at his age. But breastfeeding is still a big part of it. I believe that weaning is a process and it will take time for him to fully replace breastfeeding.

Jack does still love to nurse. He likes it, needs it and benefits from it. He nurses about 3 times day although he asks more frequently. I do not nurse him every time he asks because it’s just too much for me. I also nurse a 1-year-old so I need boundaries for my own comfort. If he asks I make sure he has some water if he is thirsty and some food if he is hungry. But I can usually tell what’s going on when he asks. If we are at a park and a bunch of kids from a local daycare come stampeding in I can guarantee you he will ask. Jack has some sensitivities around auditory stimulation and if a kid screams near him I can predict him approaching me to nurse. If we have been out for a long time I’d bet you my right arm he’ll be coming to me asking for “boobie.” Jack also nurses to sleep.

Abby Theuring, The Badass Breastfeeder breastfeeding her toddler.

Non-breastfed toddlers react to all of these situations too, they just do it in slightly different ways. Nursing meets many needs for Jack at this point, but I appreciate that this is not what is commonly acceptable in our country. But you know what? It’s acceptable in my household and it’s what works for Jack. It’s not always wonderful. There are plenty of times when it’s exhausting, when nursing aversion is in full swing, when I just want to run away and hide in a closet. It’s like anything else with parenting, it’s hard and there are good parts and bad parts.

I have many friends who breastfeed their 4-year-olds. I also have friends that do not. But all of us meet the needs of our children in ways that work for us. This is what works for us.

Abby Theuring, MSW

Comments

  1. Renee Sullivan says:

    Abby, this article is spot on. This is the first article I have read abouta nursing a toddler that truely meets how I feel as a mother nursing a toddler (3 years and 7 months) and a 7 month old. We even call it “boobie.” While out to lunch today I was “doing boobie” with my 7 month old and my father in-law said “oh, he just needed to do boobie again huh?”. I laughed. My mother in-law scolded him for it. My response was ” We have no shame he needs to nurse .” She went on to tell him we don’t have to call it that in public and my 3 year old said “But Grandma that is what we call it, he just needs his milk, no big deal.” Proud nursing mama moment.
    Thank you for this article, it is greatly encouraging to feel we are not alone in our toddler nursing endeavors.

  2. I always love reading stuff about breastfeeding toddlers! It definitely encourages me when I feel like I’m being judged for nursing my almost 3 year old daughter. Some days I hate it and want to stop, and on other days I love it. My daughter is definitely not ready to give up boobie yet, so I plan to let her wean herself. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Abby you are really cool, thanks for blogging I appreciate what you write. My 1yo is ebf and only just starting to try other foods. I never imagined feeding past a year, and yet here we are, certainly no end in sight any time soon. I’m not looking forward to what seems like inevitable criticism as he gets older which is why its nice to know of other Mums such as yourself who are informative and reassuring.

  4. Gillian says:

    I think it is fantastic that you are able to sacrifice yourself so freely for your children via toddler feeding!
    I bet it makes you feel wonderful knowing that your 4 year-old can rely upon you for all his soothing needs. That has to be rewarding in itself. I can only imagine how terrifying it must be for him when the world gets too loud for him when dealing with auditory sensitivity. Thank goodness you’re there to offer him your breast for the comfort he needs. I wish there were more mothers who were out there to lift the burden of self-soothing. I know my son has a horrible time relating to other children. So I COMPLETELY understand the whole boobies asking when the playground gets too crowded.
    My son who is now 6 & still breastfeed. I even arranged for nursing sessions when he was in Kindergarten. Because he doesn’t like cow’s milk either. Also the he gets scares in school with the other kids & wants boob to feel better.
    Unfortunately, they won’t let me come to school with him next year & nurse. Darn haters.
    That’s okay. I quit my job to begin homeschooling.
    The way I see is…. he’ll ween when he wants to.
    And I will make sure all his emotional needs are met. If he wants my breast then that’s what he’ll get.
    I’ll go back to work when he’s done.

  5. Savannah says:

    First allow me to say that the pictures of you breastfeeding your children are absolutely beautiful and so touching. I love the intimacy and attachment they represent, and how comfortable both are in your arms.

    Second, these are your children and how you raise them is up to *you*. You know them better than anyone else on this planet and if breast feeding is what you feel is best for them, then let it be the case.

    Question: as someone who has struggled with coping during difficult emotional times, your blog post did push me to consider whether it would be helpful for your older son to develop non-breastfeeding coping strategies during times of mild and moderate stress that will last him through a lifetime. He is young, but he is also at a pivotal age where he’s setting a foundation and developing strategies for how he will handle stressful incidents moving forward. I know I developed certain strategies as a child that did not help me as an adult (I’m a “highly sensitive person”), and I wish someone could have taught me otherwise.

    Please understand that I pose this question not to judge you because I don’t know what, or if there is, a right answer. I don’t think anyone knows, but it’s a credit to your blog post that it got me thinking. =)

    • Children learn to walk when they are ready. They learn to talk when they are ready, they learn coping skills when they are ready. They stop using nursing as comfort/coping/thirst/food when they are ready. There is no reason to push them to do any of those things faster or before they themselves are ready. Learning other coping skills gradually from birth to five or six years is no less beneficial than learning them gradually from birth to three years or two years.

  6. Birgit Eichberger says:

    thanks for sharing. We’re on the same way.
    I’m breastfeeding my preemie now for about 12 month (late, hart start, long story) and I’m thankful every single day.
    I’m sure, I couldn’t have make it without you.

  7. Meghan Corbitt says:

    I nursed my 2 year old and got crap from people for it. But whatever. My son weaned slowly and as he was ready. I am pregnant and will do the same.

  8. I am so glad that I found this article:)! I am a mother of 4. I breastfed 3 of my children until age 2, and my 4 th child is still breastfeeding at 5 . I use to think breastfeeding that long is gross, and would have never expected to be doing it for this long! But my daughter is just not ready to stop! It’s her comfort:)! She only nurses in the evening or bedtime. And after she gets hurt! My husband and my other children think that it’s ridiculous, and that I need to stop, but they just don’t understand! I am sure it won’t last forever, and until she is ready to stop, we will continue this special bonding time that we share 🙂

    • Everyone gives me guff about nursing my just turned 4 year old, it’s bedtime, Maybe morning, and if a serious booboo happened. He is just not ready to stop. I’m but am not at the same time. My husband is sleeping in a different room at the moment, my son and husband have always co-slept. But now that he’s 4 it’s different… I’m worried, My son can’t give up “boonie” at night, I can usually distract in morning or even booboo’s. But bedtime is a must for him and seeping on my arm. Any suggestions are very welcome! I want him to stop but not at the same time. Please help, advice welcome.

  9. Thank you for this! Yesterday (July 11st 2015) marked 4 yrs of breastfeeding my little guy. Along with tandem nursing for 13 months. I too never set out for this, but there is no way I would ever change it. He is a very independent, outgoing person but every now and again he needs mom 😉

  10. I so relate to the post. My 2 year old still nurses and people always ask me why I haven’t weened him and why I don’t just tell him no. I believe in self weening, he will ween when he is ready and I do tell him no, if he is trying to nurse instead of eat or drink then I tell him no he needs to eat his bites first. My son hates milk also (unless it’s chocolate milk) we have tried everything, cows milk, almond milk, coconut milk, rice milk, he hates it all.

  11. U are sick !!

  12. Yes! I relate so much to this! It’s nice to know I’m not alone. Currently breastfeeding my 4yo and just-turned 2yo. And just like you, I definitely didn’t start out 4 years ago envisioning I would (still) be breastfeeding her today.

  13. Ann Haggard says:

    I turned 40 one month after giving birth to my daughter, my only child. Having spent many previous years reading, researching and educating myself on attachment parenting, I couldn’t wait to be a mother and nurse my baby. As it turns out, she is a super sensitive, highly aware, intelligent and loving child who needed to breastfeed often, starting with severe colic at two weeks old that lasted for 4 months. I was hoping to breastfeed for at least 2 years, then 2 turned into 3 which turned into 4 years. While it was second only to breathing for both of us, I was starting to feel the need to stop and, by then, she only wanted to nurse on waking in the morning, going to sleep and when booboos happened but I still wanted to be sensitive to her feelings and needs, so I called her pediatrician. Always so supportive of our family choices, this remarkable man had this to say, “Who better than her mother to begin teaching her the “give and take” in a relationship, what compromise means and the consideration of other’s feelings?”. It was supportive and wise. At 4 years old I knew we could begin to talk about the end, so a month from her 5th birthday I began the conversation and we agreed that the night before her 5th birthday would be the last time. She felt great about it, albeit a little sad, and only asked for it one time after that (which I obliged). And even though she’s been an anxious child with sometimes debilitating bouts of anxiety, she’s one of the bravest people I know. She has learned that facing her fears and the unknown is the only way to deal with her anxiety while continuing to move forward in life. She’s now an amazing, competent, independent college student and we could not be more proud. I would like to think that starting out her life being nurtured and accepted for who she was and what she needed by both my husband and me, wherever she was in her life, gentle encouragement, and the confidence as parents to know what was best for our family, has helped her become this amazing human being. Be strong, gentle mamas and papas. Follow your intuition. No one else knows what is best for your family but you. Peace.

  14. Nurse Priscilla says:

    Thank you! I really appreciate this as well as your other breastfeeding articles ! I am breastfeeding my 13 month old and have been asked when I was going to wean him since he was 6 months old! I keep telling people we will wean when we are both ready to. I never had an end date in mind and I value this relationship with my baby who grows up way too fast. I will let him breastfeed until he doesn’t want or need it anymore. People are always asking me why I don’t have an end date and try to tell me to come up with a plan which is infuriating! It’s crazy how some people think They know what’s best for you and your family .

  15. I really like this article. I have a 3.5 year old son who still nurses to sleep and sometimes upon waking. I’m expecting my second child to be born in a month’s time. What is it like to tandem nurse? I don’t feel the need to wean my son yet but I want to make sure the new baby gets what she needs.

    • Read adventures in tandem nursing by Hillary flower! Loved it!! I’m nursing my 2 and 3 (almost 4)year old boys and no end date in sight! God bless!!

  16. Thank you! My lo is turning 4 next month and I came online to find positive experiences. Really appreciate you sharing

  17. Anastacia says:

    My 4 year old won’t drink any kind of milk (except mama milk) and has some sensory issues as well. She’s slowly weaning herself off, and it actually makes me a little sad when I offer at bedtime and she refuses, because I’ve gotten so used to being needed all this time.

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