The Child Led Weaning “Controversy”

There are those that believe in “full term” or “child led” breastfeeding, and there are those that believe that a child must be weaned at a certain age. What each mother does is up to her, her child, and the child’s family. If child led weaning is for you, kudos. If you wean at an earlier age I’m a firm believer that no one is entitled to question your personal choice. (Although if you disseminate myths as solid facts, please stop damaging other people’s breastfeeding relationships. No one should ever judge you for your choices, but fear of judgement does not justify propagation of damaging and incorrect information.)

Certain words come up in discussions about weaning age irritate me, though, and I’ve basically taken this stance about the whole idea that it is somehow a “debate of right and wrong”:

Those who believe full term breastfeeding is normal quote studies and information and generally mention the same age ranges for when different milestones occur that naturally lead to weaning.

Those who believe that breastfeeding past a certain age tend to cite social influence, arbitrary milestones (“able to ask for it”… In what way? My babies ask for it from the moment they’re born by rooting around.. And linguistic milestones have nothing to do with a child’s nutritional or physical needs.) They also tend to choose different ages. 6 weeks, 6 months, 9 months, 10 months, one year, two years.

Those that believe that breastfeeding somehow becomes “wrong” at a certain point are largely in conflict with each other about the exact details or point where it becomes “wrong”. (Other than the full-term breastfeeding advocates who say “when mom or child is ready to stop it’s time to stop.”) This makes it REALLY hard for me to swallow that there is somehow a “must” age for weaning. Especially since the experts on the matter (WHO, AAP) all agree that there is nothing detrimental to nursing past those arbitrary ages and that there are many benefits to be had.

So my challenge is always this: If you feel that breastfeeding past a certain age is wrong, please provide studies and evidence. Otherwise please tone down the words that you are using to describe another person’s parenting. Words like “sick” and “gross” are full of judgement that you quite simply do NOT have the evidence to support. Your discomfort with the idea is due to social conditioning and not what is or is not healthy for the child. If there was a problem with it, there would be studies that clearly show problems and the major health organizations of the world would be speaking out against it. At best there are a few rogue pediatricians who have succumbed to substituting their own personal bias for an informed opinion.

I do not believe that a mother, fully armed with all of the many studies and information SUPPORTING child led weaning should be allowed to guilt trip a mother who has weaned her child earlier. And just as no one should be allowed to use a plethora of evidence to guilt-trip the mother who wishes to wean earlier, NO ONE should be allowed to use strong negative words like “sick” or “perverted” to back an opinion that not a shred of evidence exists to support.

32 thoughts on “The Child Led Weaning “Controversy”

  1. Great post. I’m a nursing Mom and while there is an age I wouldn’t nurse past for my own reasons, I would never judge a person for nursing older children. As long as we are doing what we feel is best for our own children…that is all that should matter. I also realize everyone has a different age that is considered “too old” for whatever reason. Some believe there is no age that is wrong like you said. So, I am wondering if anyone sees nursing a 16 year old child as wrong or strange or too old? How about a mom nursing a mentally handicapped 20 year old?

  2. I applaud you for not flat-out saying that mother-led weaning is wrong. However, I do still think some of your language is… judgemental. Possibly because I’ve met very few “full-term” breastfeeding advocates who are willing to say that it’s my choice (as the mother) to quit breastfeeding. Not all of the above mentioned advocates bother to mask their disdain for mothers who wean, calling it “selfish” or “unnatural”. There’s plenty of opionion being stated as fact on the child-led weaning side, too. I think that anyone who breastfeeds in today’s society should be supported regardless of how long they nurse.
    Personally, I’ve done one of each. My son (Mr. Independent) self-weaned at 9 months. I weaned my daughter at 10 months when I went back to work because pump-breaks meant I had to stay at work longer to meet my 8 hour obligation. I valued time in the evening with my children more than breastmilk. They are both happy, healthy children.

  3. Mandy,

    Which part do you feel is judgemental? The only thing that I’m judging is people that passing judgement on people whose choices fit their lives and that are evidence-based, or that propagate false information.

    I don’t believe that mother led weaning is a “wrong” decision or a poor one. I believe that it is a decision that a mother makes based on her life circumstances.

    I do believe that child led weaning is the biological norm for our species. That said, our species isn’t exactly very on-target for biological norms and we have adapted to a wide range of things. I believe in the health benefits and I fit that belief in with other factors in my life based on those factors and my beliefs.

    Some women that I know who strongly believe in child led weaning wean their children consistently around a year for life-factor reasons.

    I see nothing wrong with a woman who feels uncomfortable nursing past a certain age. Where I DO feel judgemental is when someone starts saying that “it is sick” or “it is WRONG” rather than “I would feel like I was doing something wrong if I continued.”

    It’s up to the individual mother in her individual circumstances to make that call. Just as no one with evidence of the biological normal-ness of child led weaning should ever tell a mother who chose mother-led weaning “you are WRONG and sick to feed your child cow’s milk”, no one should tell the mother that chooses to nurse longer “you are wrong and sick to feed your child human milk.”

  4. Sarah,
    The phrase “full-term” carries the implication that anything other than child-led is “premature” & that in and of itself has negative connotations.

    It is statments like this that I find judgemental (I supposed one-sided might be a better phrase):
    “Those who believe full term breastfeeding is normal quote studies and information and generally mention the same age ranges for when different milestones occur that naturally lead to weaning.
    Those who believe that breastfeeding past a certain age tend to cite social influence, arbitrary milestones …They also tend to choose different ages. 6 weeks, 6 months, 9 months, 10 months, one year, two years.”
    “Other than the full-term breastfeeding advocates who say “when mom or child is ready to stop it’s time to stop.”

    My issue with this post is that you talk about people who do not breastfeed past a certain age (for whatever reason) as the only ones who judge or point fingers & that simply isn’t true. I had plenty of women I knew through LLL or Play Groups tell me that it was wrong, unhealthy &/or unnatural to wean my daughter at 10 months for the reason I stated above. Very similarly I had women tell me there was “no way” my son self-weaned at 9 months. Well, he started walking at 9 months & 1 week. About a week later, he refused to nurse or take a bottle. Only a sippy-cup. He was willing to take breastmilk or formula in a cup, but that was it.

    I’m very much a “to each her own” when it comes to the topic of breastfeeding because it is such a personal decision at every turn. I agree that it is unacceptable to attack a Mom’s decision to continue breastfeeding. However, let’s not pretend that women who decide to wean (or not breastfeed at all) are the only ones judging others for their decisions. I think mothers, as a group, feel strongly that they are doing what’s best for their children/family & that is a huge factor in some of the unfortunate judgemental exchanges. In my opinion, moms on both sides of this discussion are equally guilty of harsh commentary & need to make an effort not to impose their views on others who do not share them.
    Does that better explain my reaction to the post?

  5. “Mom”- I can’t comment on hypotheticals. Generally speaking “child led weaning” occurs at an average age of just around four in industrialized countries.

    What I can say is that 16 or 20 surpasses natural weaning milestones as well as the term “child led”. At 16 or 20 it is highly unlikely that the person still has an immature immune system (cancer patients of all ages do receive breastmilk and benefit from it..). At 16-20 it’s highly unlikely that the person still has a suckling reflex as that tends to disappear at about the same age that the adult teeth come in. At that age it’s highly unlikely that the movements that the adult mouth is making resemble anything similar to the suckling of an infant or child who has not weaned.

    I won’t say “there’s no benefit to it” because breastmilk contains stem cells, excellent bioavailable nutrition, etc. that doesn’t change. However, it’s outside my realm of knowledge.

    It’s also unlikely that the woman still has milk at this point, as a species tends to not produce milk indefinitely unless they continue having babies. I suppose that Mrs. Duggar could attempt to nurse her oldest child and that would fall around the age ranges you’re mentioning. But if it happens it’s rare and it’s not a situation that I can comment on.

    1. Good points but you didn’t really answer my question. You sort of tip toed around it. You talk down others’ opinions on what is too old, weird or sick and by pretty much stating that those words should not go hand in hand with breastfeeding no matter the age. In a sense, you are claiming that there should be no limit. “Nurse as long as your child wishes!” like so many say. What about for comfort? Many babies/toddlers/children nurse for comfort. As I had asked, what about a 20 year old severely handicapped person? 16 year old handicapped? I have an old family friend who is 22 with the mind of a 7 year old. He still sucks his thumb, carries a teddy bear, etc. all for comfort. In his mind and habits and likes/dislikes, he is 7. He is also missing the majority of his teeth due to medical problems so adult teeth aren’t much of an issue. What if he was the child of a “full term breastfeeding mom”? Would it not be weird or strange or too old to nurse him? It isn’t impossible had he been raised that way. As for needing a baby to breastfeed, that isn’t necessarily true. One of the women that attended one of our local LLL groups adopted a girl a little over 3 and decided to build up a supply and ended up nursing her successfully even though, coming from a drug addicted mother and then foster homes, she’d never nursed before. So, the average facts you mentioned don’t always ring true. You say that there is no age that is too old…but I find that very hard to believe. Everyone has a limit on everything in life. We all draw our line that we refuse to step over with every thing in our lives.

      I appreciate you attempting to answer my question though, it seems as if you are a little conflicted with your feelings on what you said in your post versus what you would feel with special situations that lead to much later weaning than is the social norm.

      As for the term “full term” breastfeeding, I don’t find that term very factual as “full term” is different for every child. Some naturally self wean despite a mothers wishes at a little over 1 year, others nurse until 8+ years. But whether the baby weaned him/herself or were guided by their parents – any time spent breastfeeding is wonderful and a gift to both parent and child. Those who practice “child led weaning” aren’t any more special than a parent who gently guides a child to wean. I’ve seen arguements in forums over just this subject. I’ve seen mothers who nurse children past toddler age attack a mother who had made a post, expressing her sad feelings about her 1 1/2 year old self weaning. Her child lost more than I think it was 5 pounds (?) over the course of a few weeks because she refused to nurse. She ended up in the hospital due to dehydration, so the mother decided to give her child soy and rice milk although she did continue to try and nurse her with no luck. The CLW advocates on the forums attacked her by informing her it was nust a nursing strike which every baby goes through and what a horrible mother she was for not trying harder. It turned really ugly, really fast. So, while women are often judged for breastfeeding “too long”…the same is said for those who don’t nurse until their children have a full set of adult teeth – even if their children DO self wean. If it isn’t as long as what some deem as “normal” then it is considered “premature”.

      Your post was nicely written and I can tell that you really meant well. But, you still came off as just a little uppity about choosing child led weaning over those who guide their children to wean. But it is one of the better posts I’ve read on the subject.

      1. You’re trying to turn this into a discussion of exceptions. I haven’t outright said “yes, breastfeeding a 20 year old would be fine and dandy” or “omg sick” because you’re involved in a completely different discussion than I am.

        On phone so hard to respond in depth. You’re talking about inducing lactation which requires significant work and simulating a newborn’s nursing patterns while taking herbs and medications and pumping or hand expressing. Without the induction of lactation through either methods such as this (which will not work for many women) and which will not work without either a newborn or large amounts of pumping or hand expression. These are not normal parts of a breastfeeding relationship any more than bottles and sippy cups are.

        If someone is inducing lactation to nurse a 20 year old, that is not child led weaning. In this post I am talking about the natural process of a mother/child diad that is not interfered with. Inducing lactation as a child passes through natural weaning milestones and turns into an adult is an entirely different topic.

        Outliers or exceptions tend to be something best addressed on a case to case basis because hypotheticals include all sorts of imaginary assumptions which can either make the individual situation into something undoubtably perverse or perfectly okay.

      2. Part two (have to keep going back and re-reading to reply).. Did I say that those who are practicing child-led weaning are “more special” than those who wean at 3 weeks, 2 months or a year or that no exceptions exist for children that wean very early?

        It’s a bell curve. Those who wean before a year without some “cause” tend to fall into a statistical minority. I don’t doubt that they exist. And anyone that advocates starving a child to the point of dehydration due to “too early” weaning is irresponsible. Again, you’re trying to turn this post into something that it is not. This post is about women who choose to allow their children to follow a course of weaning that relies on natural weaning milestones, not the statistical outliers that wean early, or mothers that choose to wean early for whatever reason.

  6. Mandy,

    I never said that full term breastfeeding advocates were innocent of judgement. Yes, there are a lot of people that are judgemental.

    I said that they are innocent of declaring an expiration date on someone else’s breastfeeding relationship and they are innocent of interfering in a longer and healthier duration.

    Weaning while a child still has a dependence on milk IS premature. Premature isn’t a judgement. If “premature” was a judgement then I would be judging every woman who gave birth before 40 weeks as well. It’s a statement.

    In this country, even those that practice child-led weaning tend to have premature weanings if you take into account all of the natural and biological weaning milestones. For example, my 18 month old will likely be weaned before April because of my pregnancy and the fact that my milk is pretty much non-existent. That’s premature. It is happening on a timeline that does not relate to HIS needs, but that relate to the needs of his unborn sibling. If I’m judging those that wean prematurely, I’m pretty firmly in that group as both of my sons have weaned due to my pregnancy with their subsequent sibling.

    I don’t support any judgement. However, I am more unforgiving of judgement that has no evidence to back it than I am of judgement that has evidence to back it. Neither is a good thing. I just understand one more than the other. And in this particular area, the full-term breastfeeders are the ones that have evidence to back their judgement.

    That said, I will repeat one of the last lines of the article: I do not believe that a mother, fully armed with all of the many studies and information SUPPORTING child led weaning should be allowed to guilt trip a mother who has weaned her child earlier.

  7. This is awesome! I wish everyone in America could be educated as to what is biologically normal in regards to breastfeeding. I am so sick of people making comments that full term nursing is “gross” or “just wrong”, and I REALLY hate how people act like if you’re going to nurse a 4 year old you’re going to nurse a teenager. I can’t believe people don’t understand that that isn’t how breastfeeding works! I shared this on my Facebook to try and get some awareness out there. Keep up the good work!

  8. I think we should be breast feeding babies, not todlers. 18months is old enough. I believe that as with all brest feeding species the mother needs to wean her young at an appropriate age, most of the time this is not when the baby, puppy, foal etc chooses it. Mothers who continue to breast feed past this (in my opinion- base solely on my experiences) are clinging on to there babies as babies and not helping them socialy. if studies prove breast milk is benificial after this point, just express guys!

    1. If they prove that breastmilk is benificial after a year, then it would still be benificial to breastfeed the child after a year. Therefore expressing milk would be an unneccessary step to deliver milk to the child.

    2. Simonne, There are many benefits to breastfeeding into toddlerhood. While the children may not get the majority of their nutrition from breast milk any longer, they do get the intense benefits of antibodies from the mom. In fact, I just read that because toddlers nurse less often, the immuno-benefits of breast milk are much more concentrated – kind of like a supermilk to ensure the children are protected from disease. It’s really easy to say “just express, guys” but for many of us, pumping is difficult. After my supply was established, it was incredibly difficult, painful and frustrating to pump milk for my DS.

      Sometimes, toddlers need to nurse for comfort as well. My son, now 13 months, eschewed the pacifier soon after he got teeth. So when he falls down & cries, if a hug or a cuddle don’t do the trick, a quick nursing session will. A pacifier won’t.

      And how will nursing past 18 months hurt my child socially? I’m not being snarky, I’m really asking if you have data to back up that claim?

      The breastfeeding relationship is between a mom and her nursling and they should figure out what is best for them. It’s not up to us to tell a mom and/or child it is time to wean just because a certain age makes someone else uncomfortable.

  9. One last comment to “sarah” mothers can produce milk indefinatly as long as some thing is still sucking, expressing etc. in the same way a non,child baring woman can produce milk by expressing (takes about 3 weeks, but milk will come)
    Just an interesting fact I thought id add after reading previous comments :)

  10. This was lovely I child led weaned and wouldn’t change that, but I had some friends and clients (I’m in the beauty business so we talk about life and I like to speak good thoughts on nursing) who thought that my nursing til 15months was bizarre. They did exactly what you said, had no evidence just a general discomfort. I think you worded this article perfectly for how I felt, thanks!

  11. Sara, I first want to say well done! I thought you addressed a hot topic in a very balanced way.
    Second, I want to say that it’s obvious from the comments that no matter how sensitive you try to be, people are going to choose to be offended and critical.

  12. “mom” could you give us a real life example of either of these extremes you sited? Also, severely handicapped people very often don’t eat by mouth. Even if they do, the suck/swallow/breath coordination of the severely disabled is very often severely impeded.

    and Simone – hardy hardy har! You have not met the long term nursing children I have if you honestly believe their social skills are lacking!

  13. I’m thinking “mom’s” questions about those two specific ages must have come from this opinion piece about Anne Sinnot’s book:

    If you are going to use that as your basis, you may as well also quote Ann Sinnot herself who commented to the article about how the author (admittedly uncomfortable with a child nursing beyond babyhood) misrepresented the situations where it was known that a child of 16 was nursed.

  14. Thank you. I was told that it was child abuse to nurse past a year old. Abuse, seriously!
    On the other hand, I was told that I was brave. Why brave? And that comment had nothing to do with facing criticism. It was as if my growing son was something to be afraid of.
    Biting? I was bitten so much during that first year of nursing and never during the 4 1/2 years that followed. Yup, you read it right, he self-weaned half way through kindergarten.
    I don’t know if he is better off for it, worse off or just absolutely normal. I just know that he is a healthy, happy little boy who is now a very bright second grader (for which I actually credit his Daddy).

  15. I think some people just want a fight from the tone if the first few comments. I do believe that this article may be biased, but she obviously does not claim to be unbiased. She clearly states she personally believes babyled weaning is for her. She also stands up for mother led weaning advocates. I enjoyed the read and can take it for what it its.
    I personally am for baby led weaning and feel pretty strongly about it so I usually have a hard time listening to someone try to justify weaning earlier than I would. So I try to read open minded articles like this one to help me open ntt mind up and sympathize with people who

  16. Sarah, thank you for writing such a beautiful article! I just found your blog via pintrest and am so glad that I did! Mothers support mothers as long as the child isn’t being harmed. Formula for you? That o.k. Boobie for you? Thats okay to. Mothers are naturally apart of a wonderful sisterhood that to many do not see. We are to learn from one another and accept and support one another… You nursed for 2 weeks? Thats fine. You nursed for 3 years? Thats fine too. As long as a mother and her family are happy, what does it matter?

  17. My goodness! To write a blog you almost need a debate degree!! It seems anyone not completely spineless and has an opinion about anything is judgmental. What do people expect when they read a blog about nursing and attachment parenting?

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