When Is a Child Too Old to Breast-Feed?

Some mothers breast-feed their children up until they are 5-years-old.

ByABC News via logo

July 29, 2007 — -- Many people see breast-feeding as a natural and loving part of motherhood. So, while there may be disagreements about the proper places to nurse, there is little disagreement about its benefits to infants.

Leighanne O'Connor, 42, a stay-at-home mother of three, has breast-fed all of her children.

"I breast-feed my kids until they've finished," she said.

But, not everyone would agree with how O'Connor nurses her children. She has nursed beyond the one-year mark.

"For Phoebe, my oldest, that was three years, three months. For Chloe, that was three years and 11 months, and Finn is still nursing," O'Connor said. "He's just over 2 years old."

The American Pediatric Association defines extended nursing as breast-feeding infants beyond their first year. In the United States, only 17 percent of new moms nurse their newborn for a full year, according to a survey done by Abbott Laboratories, a formula company.

In some cases, there are mothers who continue to nurse children who have turned 4 or even 5 years old, which is old enough to enter kindergarten, believing their children will reap nutritional benefits.

"The idea of breast-feeding a child until they're a preschooler is still fairly restricted to a small group of women, or at least, it's kept in the closet," said ABC News parenting contributor Ann Pleshette Murphy.

The practice of extended nursing has sparked heated controversy because some disagree about when it is no longer appropriate to breast-feed children.

Some parenting experts say breast-feeding too long could potentially stunt child development because it may impede a child's ability to self soothe.

However, the American Academy of Pediatrics supports mothers who want to nurse as long as necessary.

"It's completely appropriate that a mother should avail herself to her infant or toddler," said Dr. Lori Winter, of the American Academy of Pediatrics. "That's in no way damaging to the child."

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends nursing up to one year and as long as mutually desired by the mother and the child.

Studies even have shown extended nursing has great health benefits for the child.

"They don't become as obese as children who are not being breastfed," Winter said. "They have protection against ear infections, diarrhea."

Mothers too can benefit from the process.

"A mother can reduce her chances of pre-menopausal breast cancer if she breast-feeds for at least two years," Winter added.

For the rest of the world it's very common that toddlers 4 to 5 years old still are nursed by moms for bonding and health reasons. The World Health Organization recommends breastfeeding babies up to two years, precisely because of the breast-cancer-prevention benefits.

O'Connor nurses her children to sleep at night, and also throughout the day.

"If he's fallen down and gotten hurt, it's sort of a nice way to sort of reconnect and feel comforted," O'Connor said.

O'Connor firmly believes in the health benefits of extended nursing.

"It's not something that we see all the time, so it can seem a little unusual," O'Connor said.

Betsy Jelsavcic is an experienced nursing mom having breast-fed four boys, but she never thought breast-feeding was right for her before she had children.

"The whole thing sounded really bizarre to me," she said. "I had never had any experience with that kind of job."

But after learning all the health benefits of breast-feeding for the babies, Jelsavcic changed her mind.

She nursed her oldest son, who is 9 years old today, until he was four and a half.

"When you have a child, you develop this incredibly intense bond, and you just have this drive to become very responsive to their needs," she said.

Now, Jelsavcic is a strong proponent of extended nursing, after discovering about health benefits like fewer allergies and stronger immune system.

"I was much more willing to endure a little awkwardness and a little discomfort than to rip something away from him," she said.