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To Wean or Not to Wean? That is the Question


Author Andy Steiner

Andy Steiner

Courtesy Andy Steiner

This could either feel like a beacon of light on the horizon or a sad reality of life: At some point, every mother stops breastfeeding. Some start thinking about stopping not long after they've begun. Others find that nursing becomes such an important and rewarding part of their lives that they feel like they could go on forever. Usually a mother (or, regrettably, another outside adult force) leads the charge to stop nursing, but sometimes it's the kid who makes the final decision to quit.

No matter how it comes about, no matter if it feels traumatic or natural for the parties involved, the truth is this: Weaning happens.

Anthropologist Katherine Dettwyler, Ph.D, famously studied the average weaning ages of primates, humans' closest ancestors. She concluded that if left to their own devices, human children would likely wean at or around the same ages as apes, orangutans, and gorillas -- somewhere between two and a half and seven years. Even though she knows that Western social mores don't allow for many seven-year-old nurslings, Dr. Dettwyler still advocates for the nutritional, emotional, and developmental benefits of extended breastfeeding, a stance that has elevated her to hero status in the attachment parenting world.

"You have to consider the needs of the individual mother and look at the individual baby," Dr. Dettwyler says. "That said, weaning at six months is not biologically normal. When babies come out of the birth canal, they don't know they are Americans," she says. "They don't know that our culture expects them to stop breastfeeding at a specific time. All they know is that they are little baby primates. Their bodies are going to expect to nurse for two and a half to seven years, and to them that is normal."

What seems normal for one baby might feel abnormal to another. Timea Szalay is a lactation educator and mother of four from Innisfil, Ontario. While she knows that many children continue to nurse happily well into their preschool years, she's come to the conclusion that most kiddies decide to call it quits long before they're old enough to ride two-wheelers.

"This isn't the case for every child," Szalay says, "but I generally find that babies wean themselves sometime between 18 months and three years."

When Szalay started having children, she decided that she was going to let her babies determine the way they wanted to be breastfed. "From the start, I knew that I was going to let my children lead the way," she says. "I was going to let them decide on their own when they wanted to nurse, how much they wanted to nurse, and to have their own way of weaning themselves." Her first children, a set of twins, abruptly stopped nursing at four-and-a-half months. Her third child stopped taking breastmilk when he was less than nine months old. Both weanings took Szalay by surprise.

"My twins just quit one day, and there was nothing I could do to get them to start again," she recalls. "I was terribly sad about it, but I was also so overwhelmed by being a new mother that I didn't know what else to do. My third stopped taking the breast when I had pneumonia and I had a high fever. I was very sick and on antibiotics. I don't know if that's why he stopped nursing, but for some reason he just stopped one day. I often think I could've stopped taking the antibiotics, that maybe that would've brought him back, but eventually I told myself he stopped when he wanted to."

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