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What does full-term breastfeeding really mean?

Monica Beyer is a mom of four and has been writing professionally since 2000, when her first book, Baby Talk, was published. Her main area of interest is attachment parenting and all that goes with it, including breastfeeding, co-sleepin...

Let your child lead the way

Sometimes called extended breastfeeding, full-term breastfeeding means that you don’t wean your child at a predetermined age — instead, you essentially let her wean herself.
Toddler breastfeeding

Breastfeeding is recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics for at least one year, and the World Health Organization’s recommendation bumps that up to two years — and both also suggest that moms continue for as long as they want, as mutually desired.

So what is full-term nursing, anyway?

The long haul

The phrase “full-term breastfeeding” may be a new one to your ears, but you’ve probably heard about extended breastfeeding, which usually means nursing after a baby passes the first birthday. Full-term nursing is similar, except Mom has decided to let breastfeeding take its natural course and doesn’t plan to do any parent-led weaning by a specific date or age.

Children often nurse frequently until they are around age 1 or 2, but as they become toddlers they usually spend less and less time at their mother’s breast as they work on exploring their environment and burning up energy. Nursing is often relegated to naptime or bedtime, and occasional comfort sessions when the child is hurt or scared. The bedtime and early morning breastfeeding sessions are often the last to go, even when nursing during the day has completely stopped.

Age of weaning

Moms may fear that letting a child wean on his own means that he will nurse until kindergarten or beyond. However, children can naturally wean themselves at any age from quite young until age 4, or sometimes older.

Amanda, mom of four, told us about her self-weaning experience with her second child. “He gradually nursed less and less until he was around 20 months, which is when he stopped completely,” she explained. “I weaned my first when he was 13 months because I thought babies were supposed to by 12 months, and that decision left me with a bit of regret, so I was glad to let my second stop on his own.”

Realities of nursing an older child

Jennifer, mom of two, is still nursing her youngest child who just turned 3-1/2. She has experienced no grief from anyone about nursing a preschooler but she’s aware that it isn’t for everyone. “I’ve had people say, ‘I just can’t imagine nursing a 3-year-old!’” she shared. “I tell them that when you’ve nursed a child since birth it’s totally different — it’s still the same baby, just bigger. I didn’t start breastfeeding her when she turned 3. I’ve nursed her all along and it’s totally normal to us.”

Jennifer admits that while nursing an older child does have its benefits, it is becoming somewhat challenging and she’s had to teach her little girl “nursing manners” to discourage breast grabbing and shirt pulling in public. Fortunately, she avoided mentioning the word “boob” when describing breastfeeding to her little girl so she’s completely avoided loud requests of that sort in public.

But most of all, she feels that it’s been a blessing to have the time to gradually wean instead of choosing an age to try to stop. “Breastfeeding is important to her, it’s important to me and I think we’re happier,” she explained. “I don’t expect everyone to understand it, but I’m glad we’ve made the choice to do it this way.”

More on breastfeeding

Why I love breastfeeding my preschooler
Why you should breastfeed your toddler
Why breastfeeding a 3-year-old rocks

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