Breastfeeding - How Long is Too Long?

Filed under: Breast-Feeding

Breastfeeding is all over the news. There's Salma Hayek nursing the starving baby of another woman on a UNICEF fact-finding trip to Sierra Leone. Here's new mom Naomi Watts crediting her trim post-baby figure to breastfeeding: "He's sucking it all out of me." Don't overlook the Facebook dust-up, where members are posting nurse-ins in response to site's decision to ban breastfeeding photos.

Perhaps the most jarring of all reports, though, are the so-called extreme breastfeeders.

Celebrities Who Breastfed

    "I'm like an alcoholic. It's like, I don't care if I cry, I don't care if I'm fat, I'm just gonna do it for one more week, one more month, and then, when I see how much good it is doing her, I can't stop. It's a very powerful thing you know."
    Salma Hayek on breastfeeding

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    "I don't feel stunning yet. But I'm breast feeding. And he's sucking it all out of me, it seems. And when the baby comes out, it's a lot of weight right there."
    Naomi Watts

    Arnaldo Magnani, Getty Images

    Jada Pinkett Smith

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    Cindy Crawfod

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    Julianne Moore

    Getty Images

    Demi Moore

    Getty Images

    Celine Dion

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    Hillary Clinton

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    Catherine Zeta Jones

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Knowing the cost, health and bonding benefits, most new moms plan to nurse for a few months, even a year. What about when that year turns to four or five, or more? It happens more than you'd think.

Mary Pennington of Durham, ME, remembered thinking that her older sister, who nursed one of her children until the age of three, was a little odd. "I didn't get it," she told ParentDish. "If you'd told me that I'd be nursing a four-and-a-half year old, I'd say 'You're crazy.' But I don't think you're prepared for the changes in what you might feel once you have a baby."

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends breastfeeding through the first year of life and beyond for as long as mutually desired by mother and child. "There is no upper limit to the duration of breastfeeding and no evidence of psychologic or developmental harm from breastfeeding into the third year of life or longer."

But just 36 percent of babies in the U.S. are breastfed through six months, according to a 2008 report from Brigham Young University. For those who do practice extended nursing, the average is closer to three years. But even the most committed strain under the judging glares of family and strangers.

"Their reaction is uggh," said Robyn Paul, a lactation consultant and mom of three who was interviewed for a 20/20 story, "Breast-feeding Past Infancy." "But it's perfectly normal." When Tiernan, 6, needs comforting, he asks for "nummies." "We've had conversations about what it tastes like and he says it's very sweet," Paul said.

"Very few new moms go into pregnancy or childbirth thinking they want to breastfeed a 5-year-old," said Carrie Lauch (pictured), host of Natural Moms Talk Radio and mother of four. She just weaned her 6-year-old daughter six months ago. "But the weeks and months move on, and the benefits for the child and the mother never go away."

Many people, not surprising, believe that's both harmful and shameful. "If a mother is breastfeeding a child of 5 or 6 years old she should be arrested and prosecuted for abuse/sexual molestation/pedophilia/mental illness etc," Mike posted on FaceBook after viewing the program. "Sick. wrong."

"Everyone has their upper limits that they might think was okay, and what's unacceptable," said Pennington, who nursed her daughter Maysa until after her fifth birthday. "And each comes to that on her own. When you're outside of that situation, it might seem inconceivable. But they're still always your baby. And you're just continuing a relationship that has worked since day one. It seems very natural."

The natural length of breastfeeding for humans, according to Katherine A. Dettwyler, Ph.D., an anthropologist and leading expert on breastfeeding, lies between two-and-a-half and seven years. By that math, YouTube phenom Veronika Robinson is an outlier. Nearly 14 million of us have watched her nurse her daughter Eliza, 8.

Heated debate surrounds Pennington, Paul, Robinson and other mothers who continue to nurse outside the norm. Most rarely, if ever, do it in public and consider it a private mother-child experience. "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," said Paul to 20/20. "My daughter's the same way. Very much so."

Victoria Scanlan Stefanakos is the editor of Project Homestead

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AdviceMama Says:
Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.