Extended Breastfeeding, Milk Production, and Feelings About Nursing

Yesterday (Thanksgiving), I nursed my daughter and batted around ideas for my weekly Phthursday Philosophy article. Of course, being that it was Thanksgiving, the most obvious choice was to do a “What I’m Thankful For” post. In the end, though, something else got into my head. As I looked into my nursing W’s face, it occurred to me that she was doing the thing for which she was most thankful. W’s less than a year old, so nursing is still a major source of her daily calories. It’s also meaningful to her in so many other ways; it’s comfort, and mama, and love…all rolled into one. I’m a big advocate of breastfeeding (for me, I mean; others make their own choices, and I’m a big advocate of picking what works best for you) and W and I are nowhere near weaning.

Having said that, though, I was reading La Leche League’s excellent book The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding the other day; specifically, I was perusing the section on nursing a toddler. The book mentioned that in many cases, older toddlers and preschoolers who are still nursing may not be getting any milk, or only minimal milk, and yet they still enjoy nursing. This was a revelation to me; I had assumed that once mama’s milk dried up, the nursling would wean. In fact, I assumed that in general it was the weaning of the nursling that caused milk to dry up.

I’m in an interesting place, intellectually and emotionally speaking, as a result of this revelation. Before I had W, I figured I’d wean at a year (whether she was ready or not). I had the “If she’s old enough to ask for it, she’s too old to have it” notion firmly embedded in my mind. The more I read about nursing, however, the more I changed my mind. I don’t necessarily think a baby living in an industrialized, developed nation needs to breastfeed longer than a year (the scientific evidence on this topic is simply quite lacking, as Alice at Science of Mom addresses), but I certainly think that continued nursing is emotionally comforting, if not emotionally and physically beneficial (though I hesitate to use the word “beneficial,” since again, there’s no good scientific evidence) to the older nursling.

Nursing — that is to say, breastfeeding — is one thing, though; simply suckling, or dry-nursing, is quite another. I have not dealt emotionally with how I feel about continuing to nurse W if and when my milk disappears. There are those who would tell me that nursing continues to be beneficial even if the milk is gone. My question, though, is how do they know? There’s no research to support “extended” nursing for nutritional OR emotional reasons in the developed world. In the undeveloped world — where studies on extended breastfeeding are more numerous and come down conclusively on the side of nursing well into toddlerhood, if not beyond — the studies deal with mother-child pairs in which the mother is still lactating. Scientifically, dry-nursing gets into uncharted waters. Milk isn’t the only “chemical” involved in nursing, so it’s reasonable to speculate that even dry-nursing could affect hormone levels, neurochemicals, and so forth in both mother and baby, conferring benefits. But this is pure speculation. Is there anything more to dry-nursing than simply baby using mama as a human pacifier?

My mind is buzzing. What do I do? It’s not a decision I feel I have to make based upon science; I’m fine with doing something scientifically unsupported if it makes both me and W happier. From an evolutionary perspective, it seems a cave-mama would knock a cave-baby away from the breast if mama’s milk had dried. Because I try to parent in a way that both feels integral and is true to my evolutionary roots, should I do the same? If W is still enjoying nursing a year or more from now, though, and if I find it a useful parenting tool for inducing naps, calming tantrums, or soothing skinned knees, will I really want to give it up? Emotionally, will it feel right — will it feel integral — to continue to nurse even if I’m barely lactating?

Have you struggled with when and how to end your nursing relationship? What influenced your decision?



Wiessinger et al. The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding. 2010.


25 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Cloud
    Nov 25, 2011 @ 18:23:47

    I nursed baby #1 until she was 23 months old. I weaned then because I was pregnant with baby #2, and the nursing was exacerbating my “morning” sickness (which was really all day). I’m now slowly weaning baby #2. She is almost 26 months old. She’s still getting some milk- I can tell because sometimes she pulls off when there is still milk in her mouth. But I think it is mostly about comfort now. We’re weaning now mostly because I’m ready to have my body not be supporting anyone else- I’ve been pregnant or nursing since July, 2006. I’ve loved nursing an older toddler. It is sweet being asked to nurse- baby #1 said “Boppy” (since we nursed on the Boppy). Baby #2 signs “more” and says “Nuh”. It is a very different dynamic than nursing a little baby- there is less urgency and more satisfaction on the little fact I look down and see.

    I figure cave-mama would probably have done whatever it took to keep cave-toddler happy, since a screaming child is (1) annoying and (2) tells nearby predators where to find you. But in this particular decision, I actually don’t care at all about the science or what is most “natural”. I just do what I want.


    • SquintMom
      Nov 25, 2011 @ 18:52:06

      Thanks for your comment, and for your insight. You sound a lot like me; with regard to this particular decision, I’m going to go with what feels right…and I’m just going to have to wait and see what that is. Right now, we’re going through a phase where nursing is sometimes very annoying (she’s asking to nurse every 2 hours all night long, and it’s frustrating). But there are times each day when nursing is wonderful; when it’s sweet, and comforting, and relaxing for us both. Mostly, with this article, I wanted to open up a conversation about the realities of extended nursing, since I sometimes see arguments being made to support it with science, but I don’t actually find that there is much relevant science to cite. Sometimes decisions have to be made without science, and that’s totally fine…but it’s important to recognize when a decision is based on hard science, and when it’s based upon what “feels right,” or what an individual wants/believes in (and it’s important to avoid presenting a decision as a scientific/evidence-based one when, in fact, it’s not).


      • Cloud
        Nov 26, 2011 @ 17:52:19

        I’m sure you know this… but you could nightwean and continue nursing. With my first child, we sort of nightweaned somewhere near a year- we got down to one nursing in the middle of the night, which I could stand. And then we kept going for almost another year. In the end, the weaning process was very low fuss. I was aiming for that again, and we’re sort of getting it. I’m not helped along by the changes in my milk with pregnancy this time, but we’ve dropped down to just nursing before bed most days, and the occasional middle of the night nursing.

      • SquintMom
        Nov 26, 2011 @ 18:19:37

        Oh, I know. It’s just a matter of whether I want to, and how emotionally painful it will be for her. I’m trying to weight the costs against the benefits.

  2. Ashley @ C is for Cockerham
    Nov 25, 2011 @ 22:48:38

    I wouldn’t say that I’ve struggled with when to end my nursing relationship, but I have changed my goal several times. My goal during pregnancy was to nurse for 6 months. Now that my son is 8 months, my goal is to nurse for MORE than 12 months. I was reading The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding recently too and have decided (as of now anyway!) that I will nurse until my son decides he is finished. The emotional benefits and bond we have is something I would like to support as long as possible. I do plan to set some boundaries though. If he is old enough to ask for it, he is old enough to understand that now might not be the appropriate time. I could easily see myself being a “closet” nurser when he is older. The only reason I could see me intervening in the weaning process is because we would like more children, preferably close in age. I guess I’ll deal with that issue when the time comes…


    • SquintMom
      Nov 26, 2011 @ 17:39:16

      Can I ask whether he nurses at night? That’s the real challenge for me right now. We co-sleep, so I’m very (perhaps too) convenient for her. Of course, last night was an anomaly (she only nursed once), and I was so neurotic (“Why isn’t she waking me to nurse!?”) and so uncomfortably engorged that I woke up every hour anyway! Argh.


      • Ashley @ C is for Cockerham
        Nov 27, 2011 @ 02:59:19

        I am facing the same challenge. Yes, we do nurse at night, usually at 9pm, 1am, 4am (sometimes), and 6am. We have co-slept off and on in various ways. More in the first three months (full-time co-sleeping), and really only as needed (sickness, teething, other milestones that frequently disrupt sleep) for the past few months. My default is for him to start in his own crib until either the 1am, 4am, 6am wake up, depending on the night, and to co-sleep until 7am. That way if he does skip a nursing, I’m more likely to sleep through it, but if he doesn’t or has a rough night, I’m there. It took a week or two for my milk to adjust and probably two months before my sleep schedule adjusted. I woke up MANY nights to stare at the clock waiting for him!! And if I was too uncomfortable, my lactation consultant suggested hand-expressing. That way I wasn’t waking my son or pumping, which would tell my body to make too much milk through the night. I was able to hand express to comfort, many nights over the sink because I was too exhausted to aim or put the milk in something for him later.

        Although I would like a full night’s sleep, I can easily handle the nights with one wake up and just have to nap the next day on the nights with more than one. I will say that he typically nursed every 30 min to 2hrs, especially in the beginning, so one or two wake ups before 6am is a “good” night for us.

        Also, our nanny and my husband bottle feed pumped milk when needed during the day, which allows me to get some rest. I work from home full-time, but I realize napping is not a realistic situation for most working moms.

  3. karen
    Nov 25, 2011 @ 23:28:53

    i, too, was firmly in the “when he’s old enough to ask for it, we’re through” category. but little m is just over 9 months old and i feel less and less ready to wean with each day. breastfeeding was, at first, so stressful and is now so… enjoyable. i LOVE the snuggling, the connection, the soothing effect on baby AND me. and can’t complain about the continued calorie burn! not sure when we’ll be done either…


    • SquintMom
      Nov 26, 2011 @ 17:40:46

      It’s funny; I often change my mind about when (in the future) we’ll stop nursing, but I have never once considered weaning now. I wonder how long we’ll keep nursing simply because “now” is never the right time. Thanks for sharing your experiences.


  4. Olivia
    Nov 26, 2011 @ 00:59:25

    With #1, I thought I would wean at 1yr.  For me, nursing was relaxing and a way to connect with baby after working all day.  Once he started refusing the bottles (pumped milk and regular milk) at 1yr, so we continued nurse (before I left for work, when I arrived home and at bedtime).  Part for my peace of mind (if I’m still making milk, it’s better than no milk, right?) and also for comfort.  We  co-slept and eventually he stopped asking to nurse throughout the night.  Like Cloud, I nursed #1 (~26 months) until I became pregnant with #2.  #1 wasn’t ready to wean and I considered tandem nursing.  Unfortunately, nursing was extremely painful during pregnancy and we weaned by telling him we had to save the milk for the new baby.  Now that #2 is here, #1 wants to nurse again.  I let him pretend.  Our ped suggested that I let him try and that he’ll figure out it’s not what he remembered.  Honestly I don’t want to open that door.  Knowing #1, he’ll probably like it and I’ve decided that I’m not interested in tandem nursing.  I didn’t think that we would nurse as long as 26 months, but it was what worked for us.  (Sorry for the duplication. Please delete the previous post.)


    • SquintMom
      Nov 26, 2011 @ 17:42:43

      Thanks for sharing your experiences. Best of luck as you navigate your situation! And you know, while I have no personal experience with tandem nursing or nursing an older baby, I have heard that once they stop, they “forget how.” Maybe he’ll give it a shot and realize he’s forgotten? I agree that nursing is important emotionally for mama as well as for baby; I still get a mega hormone rush at least once or twice a day when we nurse, and I love that feeling. It helps me to feel relaxed and recharged. Nursing also helps us both if we’ve had a tough time (if she’s sick, if she’s just had a mini-tantrum, or something like that). We’ll just have to see how long the pros outweigh the cons, especially at night.


  5. Michele Hays
    Nov 26, 2011 @ 17:04:32

    As I mentioned on the Science of Mom website, my decision to stop nursing was made for me: I had a kitchen accident that required stitches and non-baby-friendly antibiotics.

    We were down to one evening feeding, and I was panicked that my son wouldn’t sleep. Turns out, the evening feeding was for ME. He couldn’t have cared less that his bedtime routine now involved snacking on a cup of cold milk (at the time, we did almond milk due to lactose intolerance.)

    In short, mothers are so focused their babies that they often don’t consider their own emotional (and physical) attachment to nursing. It’s a legitimate factor to think about when weaning.


    • SquintMom
      Nov 26, 2011 @ 17:28:40

      I think you’re absolutely right about the focus of mothers on their babies. We want to do the best by our babies, but to a certain extent, what a baby needs most, more than ANYTHING else, is a happy, rested mother. This is something I am currently struggling with; trying to decide whether to night wean, because while the night nursing is still important to her, it’s been 9 months since I slept more than a 2 hour stretch. Maybe, just maybe, I’d be a better mother for the other 16 hours of the day if I put my foot down about 8 hours at night. But then, things are never that simple.


  6. SquintMom
    Nov 26, 2011 @ 17:36:12

    Thanks for sharing your experiences. Best of luck as you navigate your situation! And you know, while I have no personal experience with tandem nursing or nursing an older baby, I have heard that once they stop, they “forget how.” Maybe he’ll give it a shot and realize he’s forgotten? I agree that nursing is important emotionally for mama as well as for baby; I still get a mega hormone rush at least once or twice a day when we nurse, and I love that feeling. It helps me to feel relaxed and recharged. Nursing also helps us both if we’ve had a tough time (if she’s sick, if she’s just had a mini-tantrum, or something like that). We’ll just have to see how long the pros outweigh the cons, especially at night.


  7. Megyn @Minimalist Mommi
    Nov 27, 2011 @ 00:26:17

    We’ve done this both ways. #1 weaned himself by 9 months and had a bad nursing relationship from month 1-9 (went on birth control for one month & it was enough to throw the rest of the relationship off).

    With #2, he’s still nursing off & on at 18 months. He’ll go days without nursing and go for a few days where he nurses for an hour every morning. I think he’d be more dependent on breastfeeding if he wasn’t a binky kid. However, when we cold turkey’d him from the binky, his nursing didn’t increase at all. I know I still have milk, but am highly considering weaning for good. I love the immunity boosters he’s getting, but my hormones are CRAZY messed up from his off-kilter nursing. Plus, there’s the teeth!

    It’s definitely a tricky situation! I hope whatever you decide is easy on you both!


  8. Renee
    Nov 29, 2011 @ 06:17:01

    I have so much I could say on this topic (for those who don’t know me, I’m 21 weeks pregnant and still nursing my 2.5 yr old), and I haven’t figured out how to distill it yet, so I’ll stay mum on my thoughts for the moment. But The Leaky Boob reposted this on FB today and I thought you might enjoy it if you haven’t seen it yet:


  9. Ariane
    Jan 06, 2012 @ 06:05:15

    Ok, first off, the cave-mama swatting the cave-baby away image was hilarious 🙂 Seriously, though, I have just started to think about this as we’re coming up on the 1 yr mark. I thought I would wean now, but I’m starting to wonder if that’s best. I don’t have to deal with night nursing. It’s only a few times each day now. It’s so nice to be able to have a no-fail solution for any crisis. I appreciate some of the side effects (weight loss for me, amenorrhea) but I know I have to stop eventually.


  10. J
    Jan 28, 2012 @ 14:16:01

    Great post, and an interesting question. For those considering extended nursing (ie past the 1 yr mark) I highly recommend the Mongolia breast feeding article (google it) in which a Canadian mom reflects on the cultural norms of breast feeding — not a scientific perspective, but highly amusing anecdotes (and I agree w/ her that it’s the single most effective tool for calming a toddler on the edge of a tantrum!). In fact, reading this article gave me the confidence to go from “just make it to 1yr” to “as long as it works for both of us”, and we only stopped the nursing at… 30 months (and 2 months pregnant). Yes, I became the “you’re still breast feeding?!” mother that I used to think was such a weirdo — because it just worked for us. (Of course, to make it work for both of us, somewhere between 18-24mos, I got increasingly strict about “only at bedtime and upon waking up in the morning” to allow myself some uninterrupted sleep.). Here’s hoping all mamas navigating the extended nursing option with their babes can find a way to make it work for them for as long as possible.


  11. Nicoleandmaggie
    Jun 01, 2012 @ 01:43:22

    Mine weaned himself a bit before age 3, just one day he forgot how. (And he’d been gradually not nursing up to days at a time for quite some time.) Two years later I was still producing milk. I’m now pregnant and leaking colostrum. I don’t know if I’m ever going to stop producing milk. So this idea of dry nursing is odd to me.

    Re: human pacifier– the breast doesn’t have the negative correlations on ear infections or teeth that a plastic pacifier has, so who cares?


    • SquintMom
      Jun 01, 2012 @ 10:49:39

      Well, different people have different experiences. Some, like you, produce milk for extended periods of time. Other mothers have significantly reduced (or absent) milk production later in nursing.

      Regarding the “human pacifier” issue, it’s not just a matter of whether it’s good for the baby/toddler, it’s also a matter of whether it’s ok with and comfortable for the mother. Some women, like me, can’t sleep if the baby is nursing. Some women (myself included) have to work during the day, and don’t have the ability to have the little one asking to nurse “just because.” It all comes down to what the mother is comfortable with and capable of.


  12. Heather
    Dec 02, 2012 @ 21:36:47

    I have een thinking about this for a while now. My 2nd daughter is 20 mos.and this is all new to me. My first just decided to stop one day at 16 mos. and everything was fine after that. I remember trying to figure out how I ans when I was going to wean her and kept pushing my goal back as well. I was a relieved that it wasn’t as traumatic as I thought it would be, but also a little sad. Now my 20 month old only nurses as nap time and at night. We co-sleep, have for her entire life, so she doesn’t really know anything else. lately I have been thinking that I don’t think she is getting a whole lot and before she used to be okay with it, but she has started to be more frustrated some nights. She also has been staying up for a really long time alternating between wanting to nurse, but then play at bed time. I’m still trying to figure out what to do.

    On the human pacifier note I have been thinking about that for a while now and have come up with this – my pediatrician at least, thinks children should know how to put themselves to sleep, so nursing them to sleep doesn’t help this. This is a point we just don’t discuss much because I disagree with her and am going to do what works for us no matter what she says. But my recent thought was, “Why is is socially and medically okay for a child to be dependent upon a pacifier to fall asleep, but not dependent upon their mother?” When a child can only fall asleep with their pacifier they are not really putting themselves to sleep. At least my child doesn’t walk around for a good part of the day with a boob hanging out of her mouth like some kids with pacifiers do. Not saying anything is wrong with pacifiers, there have been many times where I wished my children would just take one. I just don’t understand why it is socially (and behaviorally according to my dr.) okay for them to have the pacifier but not to nurse into toddlerhood.


  13. Sk7906
    Jun 21, 2014 @ 17:49:01

    34 months here. I never thought I’d nurse that long but it was just never the right time to wean. It was a tool I had to get my son back to sleep immediately, to catch a bit of a sleep in. To get him down for naps. It reset him when he was cranky, got us through twenty incoming teeth. It’s bonded us in a way I couldn’t imagine before havig him. Don’t worry about the end. You’ll know when it’s time. And you’ll miss it when it’s over.


  14. Sarah
    Jul 15, 2014 @ 06:23:28

    Thank you for your thoughts. Although, I’m pretty sure a cave mama would dry nurse to soothe a crying cave child. It would probably be the fastest and easiest way to quiet a loud child to avoid predators. Anthropologically speaking, I believe that crying is a trait favored by evolution. If a baby was too quiet then the parents might not tend to it as much and it might not thrive or I could get kidnapped by predators to be eaten. As for breastfed babes most of the time crying gets them directed to the breast so they nurse, as they grow they continue to seek the breast for comfort


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