I won't take up space to post another long excerpt from my other chapter in my book, the one about weaning, but that chapter does provide many lines of evidence suggesting that the "natural" age at weaning in modern humans would be between 2.5 and 7.0 years, if we didn't have various cultural beliefs about how long it should be. I looked at lots of different data, and the absolute minimum age was 2.5 years. All of the studies done to date on the health benefits of breastfeeding show continued health benefits and IQ increases up to 2 years of age. Beyond two years of age? There haven't been any studies yet. But it is hard to imagine that all the good nutritional benefits, immunological benefits, and long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids thought to be responsible for the IQ boosts would suddenly disappear the day after the child's second birthday! So, if you want, when you go to visit your mother-in-law, tell her that "scientific research by a professor at Texas A&M shows that 2.5 to 7.0 years of nursing is what our children have been designed (whether you believe "designed by evolutionarey forces" or "designed by God") to expect." I find that often critical relatives, friends, neighbors, and even strangers, will find it very difficult to respond to a statement like that. Maybe it isn't fair that we can't just say "I'm parenting the way that feels right to me" and be respected, but people usually do show more respect for doctors and "scientific research," and it moves it away from being so personal, something that you are just doing to be weird (in their eyes), and into the realm of what the research suggests is best. I know some people who tell unsupportive relatives and friends that their pediatrician said the child needed it. Again, the pediatrician isn't there to argue with, and most people will respect someone's decision to follow their doctor's recommendations.
Another line I have used when people ask -- and I'm nursing an almost 4 year old, but with total family/friend support -- is "Well, you know, he just keeps getting older one day at a time, and if he needed it yesterday, then I guess he stills needs it today." Humor may help, also, something along the lines of "Well, he probably won't be nursing when he starts kindergarten, but if he is, I'll just have to meet him at recess." Or, you can try the tack that children are all different and have different needs, and some kids need to nurse longer than others, and you are trying to meet your child's needs. Point out that if he was weaned, but still needed to suck, he would probably turn to his fingers or thumb, and that can lead to orthodontic problems. Also, point out that breast milk is a complete and well-balanced food, much better for human infants than cows' milk, which can trigger allergies or cause digestive problems, and that you would rather have him drink your milk than cows' milk, or apple juice, or Coke or Kool-Aid. When I hear about doctors telling moms to wean so the baby will eat more solid food, I always want to ask them (the docs) what foods they had in mind as being nutritionally and immunologically superior to breast milk -- I mean, are we talking about hot-dogs here?

I have always been blessed with a very supportive family, including a wonderful mother-in-law, who breastfed four children back in the 1940s and 1950s, when it wasn't in style. She has always supported our parenting decisions, and is just a great person all around. My heart goes out to you, trying to cope with unsupportive relatives. Hope you get lots of good suggestions from the list.

Prepared August 5, 1995.