This topic came up a few days ago while at the hospital, and it amazes me the types of things that come out of people's mouths with regards to breastfeeding and children's nutrition in general. I should preface this whole discussion by saying that on the whole, I have had a lot of support in nursing The Boy even as long as I did. Even Musical Daddy's local family, who are less accustomed to it (it's much more normal in my family; I remember seeing my sisters and cousins being breastfed), gave me very little trouble about it. I say "local" because the niece and nephews on the West Coast were all breastfed, and for a properly long time too.
One of the ones that really gets me is "He's a year old now--he shouldn't be nursing; he should have cow's milk in a cup." Um...okay...why is it that the milk that the human mother makes is all of a sudden about as good as Kool-Aid, and milk of another species is the ultimate in nutrition? Not going to get into whether cow's milk is really good for us in the first place, but just think about it--doesn't that sound ridiculous? At The Boy's 1 year appointment at the pediatrician, the doctor said that he could start drinking whole milk now. My mom and I had a good laugh about that. Was I skimming my milk before without knowing it?
Another one is "they're done once they get teeth." One of my blog buddies has a son who is very advanced in the teeth department. As in, he was maybe 3 months old when he got his first two teeth. Why in the world would you interrupt an otherwise functional nursing relationship when you could just as easily teach the kid not to bite? Biting means that milk isn't coming out. There's no possible way that the baby could be chewing and still eating. So likely the baby is playing around. You find a way to fix it.
But the actual conversation in question began because I mentioned something about not liking to see typical kids who are 4 or 5 years old walking around with pacifiers and taking them out to talk or just talking with them in their mouths. I forget how that topic came up. The nurse who was taking care of The Boy said that she sometimes sees kids that age in the hospital who will interrupt their mother and lift her shirt and start nursing. I told her that I was surprised that she sees that, considering that so few people continue breastfeeding. Not often, she says, but she has seen it. I told her quite clearly that I have no problem with kids that age breastfeeding but at some point, the child needs to learn some manners.
She said at that point, "well who is it for anyway?" in reference to a child who is almost school-aged still nursing. I told her that you cannot force a child to breastfeed, and the conversation tapered off at that point because she had to go do something else.
I wasn't upset with her about this--after all, these are pretty typical attitudes toward breastfeeding, especially breastfeeding a child past 6 months or 1 year. It did make me think, though, about the nursing relationship post-infancy.
Mothers of breastfeeding children will tell you that there's really not much in the way of physical sensation in the breasts/nipples after awhile, so it's certainly not some sort of sexual thing as some might imply. As for other reasons that it would be "for the mother," I might buy it if someone said that a mother is trying to keep the child a baby for as long as possible. MIGHT. Because you can't force a child to nurse. They just won't do it. They have to be physically involved. Perhaps if the mother doesn't enforce rules on weaning by a certain age, she is allowing the child to remain a baby. Perhaps. But if you know little kids, you know that they get very busy and have no interest in staying babies forever. They may regress temporarily with the birth of a new sibling until they realize that being a bigger kid has more perks and privileges.
One of the other phrases associated with stopping breastfeeding is "when they're old enough to ask for it, they're too old." What does that mean, really? They ask for it when they are born. They ask for it when they cry or snuggle up in a certain way. You can teach a 5-month-old to sign for milk. Some children talk at 9 months; others say nothing until well after their first birthday. Should we punish a child for talking by taking away her milk? Of course not. Another very wise mother said, "When they're old enough to ask for it, it means that they have to ask for it!" I don't necessarily envision myself nursing a 4-year-old but if I were, that child would NOT have an open-door policy with my nursing bras. I would imagine that at that age, it's a once or twice a day thing, and any other times, the child would have to ask. And sometimes wait. It's not the same as with an infant, where they don't understand the concept of waiting.
A mother can't force a child to nurse. It's impossible. But she can be more or less receptive to her little nursling at different times. A child left to his/her own devices will generally stop nursing as life gets busier. Sometimes the child will check in again every so often, but generally the mother needs to do very little to encourage weaning if she waits until the right age.
Let's just go with the World Health Organization's recommendation that children be breastfed for 2 years. It makes plenty of sense to me. You begin the process of introducing food at 6 months (and some children might not even be ready and might want to wait longer) through baby-led weaning. Let them choose how much they want to eat and learn to handle real food right away. If they are still nursing as much as they need to, it won't matter how much food they are taking in. You let them take their time switching over from milk to other food, knowing that they're covered nutritionally, and at some point around that second birthday, give or take some time, the child is eating real-people food. Most or all of the teeth have come in and the child understands how to navigate a meal. Some of the myths associated with introducing other foods or starting on formula at a certain point...well, let's just say that money talks and there is very little money in breastmilk.
So anything around that two year mark should be considered normal, full-term breastfeeding. I know that many find that strange, but it means that "cow's milk from a cup" becomes unnecessary. Going much beyond that into the territory of "extended" breastfeeding is a decision to be made by mom and child. And still not anyone's place to criticize, in terms of how long a child chooses to nurse. Furthermore, it is entirely the mother's prerogative when she would like to honor her child's request and when she would prefer that he wait. Children do far worse things than nurse too long...but again, if he is old enough to ask, he should ask and not just take.
And truthfully, if a child is four or five and still nursing, and it is mostly for comfort, where else would that child need comfort more than in the hospital??!!