One of the most common questions that I’m asked during antenatal classes is ‘how long should I breastfeed for?’. My genuine and sincere answer is always ‘for as long as both mum and baby (child) want to be in the breastfeeding relationship.’
Let me explain – breastfeeding is not a gift that you give your child (despite its many benefits) nor a sacrifice you make for them, but rather a relationship that you enter into with them. Once we frame it as a relationship then it is more obvious that, like any healthy relationship, it is entered into with consent from both sides, continues for as long as both sides want, and should have positive benefits for both sides.
Any amount of breastfeeding that you want to have with your child has a benefit – so if it’s a relationship that you are interested in exploring it is absolutely worth getting started, even if you change your mind early on. No mammal still breastfeeds beyond childhood so when biologically would humans feed until?
Natural term breastfeeding is what we call it when the breastfeeding relationship comes to a gradual stop when a child is ready with no external influences. We know that this happens for most children at between 3 – 5 years of age. In most western societies today this is no longer the norm, which means that the decision to wean often lies in the hands of the mother.
Weaning from the breast is what we usually call it when the mother is the one who has chosen to end the breastfeeding relationship. This is a valid choice and the timing of this is a decision solely for the mother. It is not our place as breastfeeding professionals, families, or friends to judge whether that was ‘too soon’ or ‘too late’.
When you are considering weaning from the breast, I would ask you to have a think about why you’re doing it. If the decision comes from a positive place ‘I’ve enjoyed our breastfeeding relationship, but now feels like the right time to move on to a new phase of parenting’ then, in my experience, this is a decision that mum will look back on with confidence and happiness. However, when the decision comes from a negative place ‘I really wanted to breastfeed longer, but I’m too sore/intense/worried about weight gain..’ then often I find mums still struggling with that decision several years later.
In these situations, I would urge you to get some quality face to face support so that you can either get to a more positive place in your breastfeeding relationship or feel more comfortable and confident in your decision to wean. I would liken this to relationship counselling – sometimes the counselling helps strengthen the relationship and sometimes it helps you feel confident that ending the relationship was the right move.
If you’ve made the decision to wean from the breast then this must be carefully managed for both your and your baby’s sake. Click here for more information on safe weaning at a variety of ages.