Jan. 2, 2009— -- Robyn Paul, her husband and their three children look like the classic American family -- until you find out that Tiernan, their kindergartner, is still breast-feeding.
Many people are shocked by the idea of nursing a child who is nearly 6 years old, but Paul remains determined to do what she says is best for her child.
"In this culture, breasts are viewed as sexual," Paul said. "We use breasts to sell everything from beer to motorcycles, then a toddler is in mom's arms nursing for what they're supposed to be used for and everybody freaks out."
No one is sure how many women in the United States are breast-feeding older children, but Paul said she suspects the number is higher than you might think. Most won't admit it, she said, because of the stigma.
"There are those women that do nurse that keep it under wraps because they're afraid of what others are going to say about it," she said.
Paul said she usually breast-feeds Tiernan at home when he needs comforting.
"They're running around and playing," she said. "Once they get beyond 3 years old they're not nursing but a couple of times a day."
Although some might consider a pacifier a more socially acceptable way to comfort their child, Paul said she would prefer that her child receive comfort at her breast.
When Tiernan needs comforting, he will ask his mother for "nummies," his word for breast-feeding, Paul said.
"We've had conversations about what it tastes like and he says it's very sweet," like vanilla ice cream, Paul said.
She is happy with the choice she made, she said, but she would never force it on somebody else.
"All I'm trying to do is let people know that it does happen, that it is perfectly normal," she said.
She has a point. The average age of weaning around the world is 4 years old and there are no studies saying it is harmful. But child psychologist Will Braun said he isn't so sure and he wonders whether it's appropriate from a developmental standpoint.
"I think a child really needs to learn to develop the capacity to soothe oneself, the capacity to tolerate frustration," he said. "When a child is constantly given a breast, it might thwart that from happening."
Paul said her decision to continue breast-feeding is in her children's best interest.
"I've never done it for my own reasons. Yes, there are some wonderful benefits for moms, but I consider them bonuses," she said. "I've never done it for myself, unless you consider having a wonderful relationship with my kids, you know, as being something selfish to do for myself. ... But I don't think that is. It's always been for them."
Paul's older children -- Morgan, 12, and Siobhan, 9 -- were each breast-fed until age 6, and they appear to be well-adjusted and happy. They're good students, have plenty of friends and were eager to reminisce about the "good old" days of breast-feeding.
Morgan remembers saying, "Can I pleeeease…" and her mom saying, "OK. Fine."
Paul said she's heard other parents complain about how distant their children are, especially the boys.
"They come home from school and you ask how their day was and all you get is a 'fine' as they walk back to their room and slam the door shut. ... They can't talk to them about anything," she said.
But she said her children are different.
"They're very loving, very close children. I can still talk to my older son and have long, lengthy conversations cuddled up on the couch with him. He will on his own accord, if we're watching a movie, come and sit down next to me and rest his head on my shoulder, put his arm over my shoulder, come talk to me about whatever's bothering him at school," she said.
"I really feel that there is an extra bonding or attachment there that I would like to think that because he nursed until he was 6, that there was some more closeness there ... that you get when you're able to have him in your arms for a longer period of time," she said. "My daughter's the same way. Very much so."
When Siobhan sees Tiernan with their mother, she said, she wishes she could still do it sometimes.
"But I'm getting older and I'm just happy to see them doing it," she said.
But it's not just Paul's older children who say it is all right that Tiernan still breast-feeds. Her husband said it's no problem, too.
Sexual? Developmental? 'I Compartmentalize It'
Paul said she is able to distinguish between being her children's comfort object and being a sexual partner for her husband.
"I compartmentalize it," she said. "When I'm with my children and they need to nurse, then I'm mom. When I'm in the bedroom with my husband, I'm his wife and we have our intimate time. It's very much, they're two totally separate things."
Though their children seem happy now, some may ask late breast-feeding moms whether they're doing what nature intended or taking a good thing too far. With no long-term studies, the jury's still out.
"Who wouldn't want to stay with mother's love, mother's nourishment, for their entire life?" Braun said. "It's a very seductive pull. But I think a mother's main job is to work herself out of a job."
Despite getting some negative feedback from people who disapprove of her choice to continue breast-feeding, Paul said she is not going to stop. She said she believes she is giving her son the best start she can in life.
"I'm comforting him, and when he's ready he'll quit," she said.
Paul said she hopes that more women will choose to breast-feed their children past infancy.
"This is a wonderful way to parent and nurture our children and give them the start that they deserve in life," she said. "You know, in other places in the world this is perfectly normal. There's nothing wrong with this and there isn't anything wrong with it. We just aren't used to seeing it in this country."