Would You Breastfeed Your
4 Year Old?

No one will deny that breastfeeding is the best way to feed your infant for the first year of life. The AAP recommends “exclusive breastfeeding for approximately the first six months and support for breastfeeding for the first year and beyond as long as mutually desired by mother and child.”

extended breastfeeding

But in this country, where only 33 percent of mothers are still exclusively breastfeeding their infants at three months of age, people squirm at the idea of breastfeeding a toddler or a young child. It can be perceived as unnecessary at best, obscene at worst.

How long is too long? And are there any real benefits of nursing beyond baby's first year? Before I became a mother, I planned to breastfeed, but I also felt that moms who nursed babies who could walk and talk were strange, even perverse. What would compel them to want to nurse a child who could make his own peanut butter and jelly sandwiches?

As time went on and my baby hit the age where I had once assumed I would stop, I began to feel like one year was an arbitrary number and that my baby was still getting as much out of nursing now as he did three months before. I began to look into the pros and cons of extended breastfeeding and was surprised to find that there are many benefits to nursing a child beyond infancy.

Health benefits

Of course, nursing has extraordinary health benefits including viral immunities, less incidence of childhood disease, improved dental health, fewer allergies and increased brain development— to name just a few. These benefits do not stop when a baby reaches one year old. In fact, the American Academy of Family Physicians notes that children weaned before two years of age are at increased risk of illness, as the human immune system is only 60 percent developed by age one.

Psychological benefits

Many studies have shown that children who nurse beyond two years benefit from the close mother-child bond and are more socially well-adjusted. They are less likely to thumb-suck or use other transitional objects. Although the average age for weaning in the United States is earlier than one year old, the average age for weaning worldwide is beyond four years old.


Contrary to popular belief, nursing children to an older age does not make them needy and dependent but rather increases their confidence and ability to achieve independence naturally. When children are allowed to pace themselves, they are more secure in their independence than children who are forced into separation before they are emotionally ready. Elizabeth N. Baldwin, attorney and breastfeeding expert, explains: "Meeting a child's dependency needs is the key to helping that child achieve independence. And children outgrow these needs according to their own unique timetable."

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Tags: american academy of pediatrics lactation psychological benefits

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Comments on "The pros and cons of extended breastfeeding"

B August 30, 2013 | 7:40 AM

Where are the cons? This is a well-written article but it's a shame you only present one perspective when the title suggests you were going to compare each side equally. I think most people are warming up to the idea of breastfeeding in general- that it is a healthy way for infants to receive personalized nutrition and immune-boosting antibodies, as well as a wonderful way to bond with their mother. My company designs systems that help feed preemie children breastmilk(who are often too fragile and underdeveloped to breastfeed in the normal way), so I can see everyday just how beneficial it is to young babies! That being said, I've obviously had to read a lot of research on the topic and there is no evidence that EBF is necessary. We certainly can't prove that EBF causes independence, closer maternal bonds, or emotional security in toddlers, yet proponents of EBF rarely admit their lack of scientific support. I would love for the breastfeeding debate to become less a competition among mothers and more of an open forum topic with understanding from both sides. Please try to present the opposite opinion next time when you write a "pros and cons" article. It makes your cause much more respected, even among those who might disagree.

Don Meulenberg April 18, 2013 | 1:32 PM

I take exception to the opening statement, "No one will deny that breastfeeding is the best way to feed your infant for the first year of life." I deny it, for well-substantiated reasons, which nobody has been able to refute after months of publicizing them, and which can be read at www.breastfeedingprosandcons.info. The U.S. EPA has found high levels of developmental toxins in breast milk, in far higher quantities than in formula, and in quantities many times higher than the levels that the EPA considers to be safe. There have been epidemics declared in childhood diabetes, obesity, and allergies, and autism is often considered to be in that category, all of which epidemics have arisen since breastfeeding increased greatly. And highs AND LOWS in all of those have correlated well with highs and lows in breastfeeding, when looking at geographical, ethnic, and time-related health data.

Char August 29, 2012 | 4:35 PM

The poll is missing either : don't worry about weaning, allow child to self-wean OR when you and your child feel is best. There is NO age of MUST WEAN by. My almost 3 year old still nurses. But when I lost our new baby and had to be induced, I tried to encourage her to nurse more for a few days to help bring in my milk so we could donate. Babies are better for bringing in milk than a pump and I figured, if she brought it in, I could pump it for a few months and donate in my dead son's honor. Well, that was not to be. Even though she still nurses 3 times a day, she would not be enticed to do so at other times in the day. When a toddler is nursing, it's because a toddler needs and wants to nurse. Yes, I'm very glad my youngest three having gotten to nurse for more than 2 and 3 years.

Mimi March 13, 2012 | 10:13 AM

I never breastfed either of my boys and they were both health, happy babies and we were just as bonded as any mother and child who did breast feed. My daughter-in-law did breast feed both of her boys...weaned 1st at 1 yr because Dr. told her to do so because she was expecting baby #2. Baby #2 she weaned at 1 yr. because she was ready for more freedom and so was he. He was independent that he almost refused to nurse. He wanted the sippy cup so he could be on the move.

Amanda aka crisantemo October 31, 2010 | 3:50 PM

Would you breastfeed your 4 year old? Yeah, I did and now she is 5 and I still do, it wasnt really something I set out to do in advance, it just happened. Anyone who hasnt tried breastfeeding their child for any length of time has no room to make detrimental comments to women who do EBF. Its all about mom and child being happy in each others company and doing something that benefits them both.

elise2 October 15, 2010 | 8:59 AM

My son was naturally down to nursing at bedtime at 3, when I really had to wean him. Once I became pregnant with #2, bf became excruciatingly painful - and I nursed through cracked nipples at the start, so had been around the block a bit. It was kind of sad to let go of, but it seems to have been an appropriate time for him, because he is happy with snuggles and hugs instead. I never would have expected to go to 3, and usually don't admit it except to other ebf moms.

Liz October 13, 2010 | 9:07 AM

Did I miss the cons somewhere? I think it definitely a personal choice and something that shouldn't be discouraged for those who want to do it. I think you have to be careful, though, in presenting the benefits -- these are correlational effects, not causation. EBF does not cause children to be independent or have healthy mother-child bonds or even necessarily to be healthier. Just like BF in general, it's not something that can be randomized to study, so we'll never know to what extent (quite a bit or none at all) the EBF is the cause for these children's happy/healthy states or if it just correlates with other parenting practices that result in these outcomes. Not a reason not to do it, just something to keep in mind when we laud the benefits of any practice.

MOMSICLE VIBE October 12, 2010 | 7:38 PM

Naomi, you are the bomb! I have squirmed a time or two when it comes to EBF. But, like you, now that my child is LOVING the boob long past 1 year I think more and more about letting her decide when to call it quits. Thanks for sharing such important info!!

elise October 12, 2010 | 2:40 PM

both my girls self-weaned at around 10-11 months, they would have kept nursing at bed time, but i felt we could get the same benefits from snuggle-time. where did you get a statistic that said the average for the whole world is over 4 yrs? is that an average number of countries? or an average of the entire world population? i'm having a hard time believing that...

Bess October 12, 2010 | 8:17 AM

I nursed my first for 22 months. I weaned her at that time only because I had had baby #2 3 months earlier and was nursing both of them and it started getting a bit overwhelming. I did nurse through my entire pregnancy, though and tandem nursed for 3 months so im proud of that! my baby is now 5 months old and, of course, still EBF. I will nurse her until she self-weans (though that hopefulyl wont happen until after age 2) or until I have another baby (whatever happens first)

Melanie October 12, 2010 | 7:54 AM

I nursed all 5 of my children. 3 of them weaned around age 2, not exactly self-weaned (I had to nudge a little). 1 weaned 2 months before her 4th birthday (again, I had to nudge) and 1 of them I weaned at 17 months because I was pregnant with #5. Breastfeeding is just a natural thing that all babies love. My smallest is near 18 months and has not had a sick visit to the doctor yet, no antibiotics, nothing.

Maya October 12, 2010 | 6:58 AM

With my first child I was not sure what I wanted, so when the cracked nipples with the biting came, I was done at 11 months, but felt sad about it. Then, with my next three I must have become hardened :) because there was no pain. The issues with them came around 2 and a half when I just was a bit ready for more space. The process took about 6 months for each. Great article, happy that people are out there discussing what we can do to improve our parenting here in the US, as a free country we are really harsh on people who choose to exercise their freedom to be different.

Dina October 12, 2010 | 6:31 AM

I suffered through mastitis and cracked nipples... both my daughters had a latch that was very painful at first... I remember sobbing in pain through breastfeeding sessions... with my first, the nurses in the hospital had to rig a contraption that would drip milk onto my nipple to help get my first one started... it was a hard process all the way around until we got the hang of things... BUT, I am SOOOO glad we stuck it out!! Once I got past all that, I breastfed both my girls for 2 years each. Your article states in a wonderful way exactly why. My girls would both still be at my breast at 7 and 4 if I let them!! That tells me it was equally as wonderful for them as it was for me. A win/win situation!! :) Great job, Naomi!!!

Karen October 12, 2010 | 5:26 AM

EBF definately wasn't for me. I would have liked to breastfeed my first longer than the 4 months we made it, but I wasn't getting very good help with my cracked nipples, and I couldn't take it any longer.

SLV October 12, 2010 | 12:28 AM

Never regretted extended breastfeeding for my three children, even in Texas where it is so conservative. Now they are all in their 20's and have developed into self-confident, self-sufficient adults.

Valiz October 11, 2010 | 10:27 PM

I so wish that our country would shift its perspective on bfing. The benefits are numerous. With such easy access to information, it seems it will happen no matter what, because you cannot disprove the truth about the benefits of bfing both for mom and baby.

Shaheen October 11, 2010 | 9:49 PM

I am looking for insight into appropriate ages to breastfeed a child, and this offers a fair view of not only public reaction, but data that supports the nutritional/emotional value of breastfeeding.

Carolyn October 11, 2010 | 9:34 PM

I breastfed my three daughters for two years each... but I was the one to wean them... they would have breastfed forever if they could. Two years was my limit... after that it wouldn't have been comfortable or appropriate for me and my family.

Danny October 11, 2010 | 8:09 PM

O.K. Man's perspective. Both my boys nurse. I have a lot of trouble believing that any child self-weans at any age lower than about 4 years. Also, mom's do it for themselves and for their kids. It is about building a loving relationship which in turn results in the most confident and independent children ever.

Sarah October 11, 2010 | 2:59 PM

My son self-weaned at 5 months. My daughter weaned at 13 months, when she started treating me like a snack bar. That said, I would have happily continued breastfeeding for much longer, if not for her sip here and there strategy.

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