Toddler nursing is not a big deal

I don’t want you to think this is a breastfeeding blog, which it isn’t, but for my third post I feel compelled to comment on the “The debate” in Today’s Parent this month. If you haven’t seen it, TP’s September issue had a one-pager entitled: The debate. Would you breastfeed a child past age two? The pro side was argued by a mom who used a pseudonym. The con side was argued by Alyson Schafer, the well-known parenting speaker, author and TV show host.

I think it’s fine to debate these kinds of issues, but I disagree with the way it was done in this case.

First, it should have either been parent vs. parent or “expert” vs. “expert”. Second, Ms. Schafer should have been made to address the actual question, which was, Would you breastfeed a child past the age of two, (which the pro side writer addressed) not, Should other people do it?

Ms. Schafer told us why she thinks moms in general should not nurse children old enough to “ask for it by name,” and took the opportunity to take another swipe at William Sears and attachment parenting, something she has done before.

Ms. Schafer is entitled to her views of course. They are shared by many people. What I take issue with, besides the fact that she didn’t answer the actual question, is her intimation that nursing into toddlerhood will lead to bad outcomes for kids. She opined that mothers who practice extended nursing tend to have difficulty setting limits and suggested that extended nursing interferes with a child’s independence (Remember, we’re talking about 2 year-olds here.) This seems to be based on a few personal observations.

First, if we want to debate whether or not kids get screwed up by nursing into the preschool years, we need more than “in my experience” observations. But more importantly, it’s just not a good idea for parenting pundits to make broad generalized predictions about kids who are subjected to this or that parenting approach. It’s way too easy to find kids who can put egg on your face.

Just off the top of my head I can think of more than a dozen awesome young adults who were nursed well past the age of two. That doesn’t prove it’s the perfect parenting approach, but it does show that little talking nursers can turn out just fine, as can kids who were weaned much earlier.

One thing I’ve noticed in debates about toddler nursing is that, just from the way they talk about it, I can tell that naysayers don’t know much about it. I’d bet their sisters, relatives and friends didn’t do it (well, most mothers don’t breastfeed much past six months.) If you haven’t been around nursing toddlers, and you were raised (as most of us were) in what was essentially a non-breastfeeding culture, extended nursing is hard to understand, jarring when you witness it unexpectedly. I understand. I used to feel like this myself.

Then I had the chance to know some of the mothers and kids who nursed into the toddler years and see them in various situations. I saw two of my own kids nurse past the age of two. It didn’t seem weird any more. The extended nursers were much like other kids, except they did this one thing – and in my experience, it was almost never in public.

I don’t blame people who haven’t had these experiences for feeling uncomfortable with nursing toddlers. I do have a problem with people making sweeping judgments and generalizations about something I’m pretty sure they don’t know much about.

BTW, in, ahem, “my experience” extended nursing is not necessarily this deeply philosophical, intense, intricately planned phenomenon people imagine it to be. Often it’s just sort of happens. If I had a loonie for every mom I’ve heard say “I never thought I’d be nursing a toddler, but …”

We’ve all got our biases about child-rearing styles and techniques. I’ve rolled my eyes at all sorts of parenting and child behaviour I’ve observed.  But I’ve also seen too much diversity and too many interesting surprises in children’s development to think that I can predict how kids will turn out from something that was going on when they were two-years old. That’s why I’m surprised, and disappointed that Ms. Schafer seems so sure of herself about the alleged perils of extended breastfeeding.

And like I said, for anyone who thinks extended nursing muck kids up, I’ve got some pretty cool, smart, and, yup, independent young adults I’d like you to meet.







About uncommonjohn

I am one of Canada's top parenting writers. My areas of expertise and interest include debunking bad parenting advice (especially about sleep), self-regulation, fatherhood, child development, children's mental health, childbirth and breastfeeding.
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6 Responses to Toddler nursing is not a big deal

  1. Lisa says:

    Hear, hear!
    Thanks for posting!!!

  2. jenn says:

    Love it!!!

  3. Sybil Rush says:

    “I’d bet their sisters, relatives and friends didn’t do it . . . ”

    There’s a good chance some their sisters and friends did do it, but didn’t tell them about it. Nursing an older baby tends to become a private matter. A lot of mothers do it, but you’d never know.

    • lyn says:

      This is so true! I had people tell me how gross it is that someone was breastfeeding a toddler. If they have teeth they shouldn’t nurse, if they can ask for it they shouldn’t nurse etc etc (not knowing I did) and I’d be thinking excuse me for a minute -I need to go breastfeed my toddler ha. Nobody had any idea!!

  4. Preach! I nursed my third baby until she was 4, granted, by that age it was only for a “treat, snack or to feel better, when ill or injured.” But, she didn’t have solid food her entire first year of life, pure breast milk, either. And this kid, out of all 4 of mine has been the one galavanting all over the world, teaching English in different countries! Independently, I might add! Not to mention, on most weekends, she hops on trains or planes and visits other cities/countries, all by herself! And has been doing so, for the last 5 years, since she was a Jr in college… So whoever said breastfeeding into toddlerhood deters independence, doesn’t know what they’re talking about!
    Thanks for sharing your blog posts, you’re an amazing Father!

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