This is a question that comes up in every single on of the ante-natal breastfeeding sessions that I facilitate, so it definitely deserves a post of its own. Firstly, it needs to be clarified. What we’re talking about here is the age your baby is when she weans from the breast, not the age at which you introduce solids.
Secondly, I can give you a very quick answer: Whenever you want to. However, that’s not very helpful when we have so-called ‘experts’ in the public eye telling us that breastfeeding beyond a certain age is wrong.
Dr Hilary Jones is a notorious figure for breastfeeding supporters, thanks to his comments in 2008 on a GMTV debate about extended breastfeeding:
“After the age of one breast feeding is bizarre, unusual and not necessary. After a year the mother gets more out of breastfeeding than the child does. This act is more for the mother’s comfort than the baby’s. The bonding process is over and nutritionally the baby no longer needs the milk.”
“Women breastfeed their children for longer for a variety of reasons. It can be to avoid renewing sexual relations with their partners, it’s easier for some mothers to just give in to the child while other mothers prefer to pretend their grown up child is still a baby.”
Jones is insistent that extended breastfeeding (and we’re talking just more than 12 months, here) can lead to problems for the child:
“If the child’s friends find out they may get picked on and it can delay the youngster from developing his or her independence. And as children get a little older, they are forming sexual feelings so it’s very bizarre to be then placing a child to the breast.”
And listen to self-styled breastfeeding ‘expert’ Clare Byam-Cook (breastfeeding counsellor to the stars!)’s opinion on the matter (her opinion starts at 3.36):
If you don’t want to listen, she basically says that because breastmilk is so sweet, giving it to an older baby or toddler is no better than giving them a bottle of coke several times a day! Well, we can dismiss that myth very easily!
Who would want to breastfeed beyond a year when the ‘experts’ have told us how damaging it is to our babies? It’s quite amazing that the human race has survived so long if Jones and Byam-Cook are to be believed when you consider the research of anthropologists, such as Kathy Dettwyler, that has shown that the worldwide average age of weaning from the breast is between 2.6 and 4.2. And that’s years not months!
As Dettwyler explains, though:
“It is meaningless, statistically, to speak of an average age of weaning worldwide, as so many children never nurse at all, or their mothers give up in the first few days, or at six weeks when they go back to work.”
From studying other mammals and primates, as well as more traditional cultures around the world, Dettwyler suggests, in fact, that the natural age for humans to wean from the breast is anything from 2.5 years to 7 years. A bit of a shock?
The World Health Organisation have this to say on the matter:
“Review of evidence has shown that, on a population basis, exclusive breastfeeding for 6 months is the optimal way of feeding infants. Thereafter infants should receive complementary foods with continued breastfeeding up to 2 years of age or beyond.”
This article is not about why you might want to breastfeeding beyond a year, but is about explaining that it is, in fact, entirely acceptable and biologically normal to breastfeed your baby for far longer than you might expect. Therefore, the best age to wean your baby from the breast is probably the age at which you or your baby no longer wish to breastfeed. Not the age that Dr Hilary Jones, or Mrs-I’m-still-breastfeeding-my-ten-year-old from down the road suggests, but the age that is right for you and your baby, and if that happens to be beyond the age that you would have imagined when you first held your tiny newborn, then that is fine. In fact, it might even be good for them – I’ll explain why in another post! (If two is the right age for you, have a look at this post about ways to help the weaning process at that age).