Hot Topic Tuesday – How Long Should a Breastfeeding Mom Keep Up?

When it comes to how a woman feeds her baby, we have an interesting paradox.  On one hand, a breastfeeding mom with a newborn doesn’t seem to be a big issue.  If anything, that breastfeeding mom is given accolades for being such a good mom and doing the right thing for her baby.  She might be suffering, miserable, and working her way through it in the beginning, but she’s got some amount of social support.

As that baby grows up and beyond the tiny newborn phase, the support for the breastfeeding mom seems to wain.  In spite of the fact that it is illegal in most of the states (I think all of them, actually) and all of Canada, women are frequently sharing their stories of being asked not to feed their babies.  This fickle support begs the question: when has a breastfeeding mom been breastfeeding too long?

The World Health Organization recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months, and then up to two.  They don’t have a deadline on when it’s time to stop.  In first world countries where we have access to clean water, it’s very common for women to stop before the six months mark, or even to skip breastfeeding altogether.  In 2009, 12.5% of Canadian women didn’t even attempt breastfeeding.  It seems that a quarter of those women had breastfeeding issues not too far off the mark from my own.  87.5% did at least attempt breastfeeding their children for at least a little while, but those rates fell off to less than 25% by the six month mark.

I’m not going to touch why they stopped.  Maybe it’s because they went back to work early (in spite of the maternity leave of nearly one year that most mothers have available to them).  Maybe once teething started, she was over having her nipples chewed on.  Or maybe it was the dwindling support for the breastfeeding mom as her baby grows.

I’ve heard all sorts of things about when it’s time for a breastfeeding mom to cut off the source.  “When he can ask for it.”  “When he can sit up.”  “When he can roll over.”  “When teeth start.”  “First birthday.”  “No later than the second birthday.”

None of those reasons are scientific.  They are all strictly of the social variety.

I don’t have a real answer for when it’s time to stop.  However, when it’s four year old breastfeeding, or moms hurrying home to meet the kindergartener as he gets off the school bus to nurse, then it might be going on just a little too long.  If your child is still breastfeeding for comfort before the SAT’s are taken, then it’s entirely too long*.  If your child is still breastfeeding and expecting a child of his or her own, then, yeah, it’s definitely gone on way too long.  Are there scientific reasons for these statements?  No.  But there’s a certain point when it just becomes… well, it goes from “healthy” to “an unhealthy parent/child relationship.”  Unfortunately, there’s no one line in the sand that says “okay, no more boob.”  Or maybe that should be “fortunately” since so many things about parenting come down to personal decisions.

When do you think that breastfeeding has gone on too long?

Canadian statistics from Statistics Canada.

Edited to add: *No, I don’t know of any instances of someone breastfeeding into high school or as an adult.  This was an example of ridiculousness, not reality.

hot topic tuesdays Next week’s Hot Topic: When has a family grown too large?

About Suzi

Suzi is an American ex-pat living in British Columbia. She's a cloth diaper addict, wife, mom of three, and President of the Prince George chapter of Cloth for a Cause.


  1. In the words of advocating organizations, such as the WHO and AAP, I think BFing should continue for as long as it is mutually desired by mother and child. And, for the record, I have yet to hear of a teenager/adult still maintaining a breastfeeding relationship with his/her mother.
    The fact is, you can’t force a child to BF. Second, there is absolutely no evidence that extended BFing is in any way harmful. Quite the contrary, if we are being honest. If anyone thinks that BFing is sexual or perverse, the problem lies with them, in my opinion.
    North America has sexualized the breast beyond recognition. It is amazing to me that parents will become indignant at the idea of their children witnessing a woman nursing her child but don’t bat an eyelash when they are bombarded with sexual imagery of the breast standing in line at the checkout stand.

    • I was kind of going for “it takes a lot to be excessive” in those, not suggesting that they happen. 🙂

      But there have been times when it’s extended into elementary school, and while it worked for mom and kid, it didn’t seem to work for dad. What about those cases?

      And thanks for your feedback!

  2. My 4 year old daughter breast fed until she was nearly 2-1/2 at which point she was (thankfully) weaned because my milk dried around 5 months into my pregnancy. One day she just said, “mommy, there is no milk.” I said, “Really? oh no…I guess we’re done.” And I was glad because I wasn’t sure how I was going to stop at that point, so I was thankful nature answered. I think 1-3 years is great for baby.

  3. I’m glad I was able to breastfeed both of my little ones without much trouble. I did extended breastfeeding with the first, who is now an amazing 4 year old with a great sense of humor and immune system. I wasn’t able to exclusivly breastfeed my son as I wished because my supply was a little low, but hes 3/4 breast milk and growing amazingly. Im not even thinking of weaning at this point because hes five months but expect he’ll be done by around two.
    I think that people who sexualize breastfeeding are the ones with issues. It falls into the category of if you think its perverted, its because you’re perverted…anyhow, nice article, thanks.

    • I wonder, though, if the “it’s time to wean” people place breastfeeding in the same category as pacifiers, bottles, and diapers. It’s not so much the sexuality aspect of boobs as it’s a “that’s for babies, and x age is too big for x thing.” KWIM?

  4. I agree. The duration of breastfeeding should be the decision of the mother and the baby. If mom and child are happy, then I don’t really care. Breastfeeding has only gone on too long when either mother or baby or both are unhappy.

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