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Gentle Weaning: Breastfeeding “Forever” Features
Barbara Higham, West Yorkshire, UK
Photo: Liesl Marelli


Early weaning

While the prevalent cultural attitude in many countries now is toward weaning babies early, during most periods of history and in most parts of the world babies have been breastfed for years rather than months (Mead & Newton 19671). A breastfed baby depends on his mother for both food and comfort and in societies that place a high value on self-sufficiency, the baby who will not be satisfied with anyone other than his mother may regarded by many as a liability.

The World Health Organization in the Global strategy for infant and young child feeding states:

“As a global public health recommendation, infants should be exclusively breastfed for the first six months of life to achieve optimal growth, development and health. Thereafter, to meet their evolving nutritional requirements, infants should receive nutritionally adequate and safe complementary foods while breastfeeding continues for up to two years of age or beyond.” 2

Children who carry on

Maria Griner

Maria Griner

Children who carry on breastfeeding beyond the age of two years tend not to nurse anywhere near as often or for as long as babies do. As children grow, nursing becomes less of an activity, something increasingly fleeting that just happens, like a hug, rather than your having to make the time for it to take place.

At times of sickness, you can expect an increase in the frequency of feedings. Perhaps the poorly child simply seeks comfort in your arms, but by nursing round the clock he boosts milk production temporarily to maximize the antibodies he receives to fight the illness. If you are exposed to any bacteria or viruses, your immune system makes antibodies to fight against them, and these will be in your milk protecting your child whose own immune system will not be fully mature for some years.

Children with allergies may continue to breastfeed for nutrition longer than those who are able to tolerate a wider range of foods, and your milk can help keep the child’s digestive system healthy.

Human milk does not lose its nutritional value.

Anna Bondarieva

Anna Bondarieva

There doesn’t exist a wealth of research studies into breastfeeding beyond three years of age, but it is unlikely that the nutritional and immunologic qualities conferred by human milk cease at any particular cut-off date.

Mother’s milk is an important source of energy and nutrients, providing one half or more of a child’s energy needs in children 6 to 12 months of age. Between 12 and 24 months, it can supply one third of your child’s energy needs.6 Human milk is a nourishing food for as long as your child drinks it.

Weaning is a gradual process that starts the moment a baby is introduced to solids and follows a unique timetable. After the first six months, support for sustained breastfeeding, as a mother introduces her baby to solids, is critical. To ensure her baby gets adequate energy and nutrition requires a mother to balance breastfeeding with solids. If she does not breastfeed frequently enough while increasing the frequency of solid foods she offers, she may risk reducing the baby’s total energy and nutrient intake.7

Mothers cannot know the precise amounts of breast milk that their children consume, nor will they be able accurately to measure the energy content of complementary foods. Being responsive to your child’s needs is key. Practicing responsive feeding requires sensitivity to children’s hunger and satiety cues, patience, and encouragement without force. If children refuse many foods, experiment with different combinations, tastes, textures, and methods of encouragement. If the child loses interest easily, minimize distractions during meals. Remember that mealtimes are periods of learning and love.8 It is important not to be overly prescriptive about amounts of foods, recognizing that each child’s needs vary. Solid foods are a complement to your milk, not a replacement for it in the first year.

There doesn’t exist a wealth of research studies into breastfeeding beyond three years of age, but it is unlikely that the nutritional and immunologic qualities conferred by human milk cease at any particular cut-off date.

Comfort, pleasure, and self-esteem

As a child grows, nursing becomes much less about nutrition and much more about comfort and pleasure in the interaction between mother and child. It is a nice way to relax for both of you, a way to reconnect after separation, to provide reassurance for any worry, to soothe a grazed knee, to calm any turbulence, and especially to ease into sleep. It is a useful box of tricks for any mother—a super power, no less! Instead of viewing sustained nursing as something to question, perhaps the real query should be, “What is there to be gained by abruptly putting an end to the breastfeeding relationship?”

Maria Griner

Maria Griner

Some worry that continuing to breastfeed will make a child overly dependent on his mother in the future. Many presume that a child won’t grow out of breastfeeding unless he is forced. In reality, it’s a natural process for all children. It may seem as though it is going to go on forever, but in the context of a lifetime it is a very small part of it. Independence, not dependence, is one outstanding trait that breastfed children who self-wean have in common (Ferguson 198710).

Trusting your child to grow out of nursing fosters his self-esteem. It’s another way of telling him his feelings matter.

A child who weans gradually is able to maintain his emotional attachment to his mother very easily, rather than needing to cuddle an inanimate object such as a soft toy or blanket. Weaning before a child is ready to let go of nursing requires you to find ways to substitute the frequent physical closeness somehow.

You cannot spoil a child with affection. Trusting your child to grow out of nursing fosters his self-esteem. It’s another way of telling him his feelings matter. Natural weaning respects differences in children by letting them grow at their own pace. Independence can’t be forced upon a child before he is ready to assume it. It is the child who is pushed to grow up too soon who clings the longer. Meet a need—it is gone!

At La Leche League meetings, you can find the support of other mothers who understand that it’s both normal and healthy for children to sustain breastfeeding, but also that a child moves on from breastfeeding and can use his mother’s help to do so.

All mothers and babies are different and there are no prizes to be won for breastfeeding the longest.


1. Mead, M. and Newton, N. Cultural Patterns of Perinatal Behaviour in Childbearing: Its Social and Psychological Aspects. Baltimore, Maryland: Williams & Wilkins Company 1967.

2. World Health Organization, Unicef Global strategy for infant and young child feeding (2003).

3. Brown, K. et al. Effects of common illnesses on infants’ energy intake from breast milk and other foods during longitudinal community-based studies in Huascar (Lima) Peru. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 1990; 52:1005–1013.

4. World Health Organization Evidence of long-term effects of breastfeeding: systematic reviews and meta-analyses. Geneva, 2007.

5. World Health Organization Summary of evidence in support of the revised WHO principles and recommendations on HIV and infant feeding. Geneva, 2010.

6. WHO/PAHO. Guiding principles for complementary feeding of the breastfed child. Washington, DC, Pan American Health Organization, 2003.

7. The World Health Organization Indicators for assessing infant and young child feeding practices Part III: country profiles.

8. Engle P., Bentley M., et al. The role of care in nutrition programmes: current research and a research agenda. Proc Nutr Soc 2000;59:25-35.

9. Dewey K. Nutrition, growth and complementary feeding of the breastfed infant. Ped Clin N Amer 2001;48:87-104.

10. Ferguson, D. et al. Breastfeeding and subsequent social adjustment in six- to eight-year-old children. J Child Psychol Psychiatr Allied Discip 1987; 28:378-86.


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