Skip to main content /HEALTH with /HEALTH

Elizabeth Cohen: Breast-feeding older kids

CNN's Elizabeth Cohen
CNN's Elizabeth Cohen  

(CNN) -- Pediatric research has shown that breast-feeding provides health benefits to babies and mothers.

Some mothers continue to breast-feed their children at ages beyond what is socially acceptable. What do experts say should be the cutoff age?

CNN Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen discussed the issue, including a case of extended breast-feeding in Illinois, with CNN anchor Paula Zahn.

ZAHN: Breast-feeding still is controversial as ever, conjuring up images of motherly love, self-sacrifice and the ultimate connection between mother and child. So why would a mother have her son taken away for refusing not to breast-feed? Well, listen to this, the boy was removed from his home for six months when he was 5 years old. He's now 8. He is back with his mother in Illinois, who still breast-feeds him. The mother vows to continue until the boy decides to stop.

Can maternal instinct be carried too far and actually hurt the child? Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen joins us from Atlanta with some answers. Most people listening to this -- their jaws are dropping, how can this be? How common is it for children in this country to be breast-fed at the age of 8?

COHEN: You know what. No one knows exactly how common it is because no one's done a study. [Tuesday], I spoke with an anthropologist who is studying women who do, or is looking at women who do extended breast-feeding. It's not a scientific study. It's just a survey that she's done.

She's found about 1,300 women who are breast-feeding their children who are beyond the age of 3. She said she has two 10-year-olds in this study, but that most of the kids are sort of in the 3- or 4- or 3- to 5-year-old range.

I spent the day [Tuesday] trying to find out -- is there some optimum age of weaning? Is there some age at which authorities say, you know what, you got to stop this, this isn't good for the child, or it's just too strange. And you know what, there isn't an age.

Let's take a look at what two medical authorities say about when to wean your child. The first set of recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics. And what they say is, "It is recommended that breast-feeding continue for at least 12 months, and therefore, for as long as is mutually desired," mutually between the child and the mother.

Let's take a look at what the World Health Organization has to say. They say simply breast-feed for up to two years or longer. So what the authorities are saying is let the mother and the child decide.

Now, what's sort of interesting about this case in Illinois where the woman had her 8-year-old child taken away is that it's pretty unusual. In fact, there have been cases where authorities have not taken a child who is breast-feeding at let's say age 5, 6, 7. They said, "You know what, that's a decision for the child to make and the mother to make; that's not a decision that we want to make." And again, this child was brought back to his mother after about six months.

ZAHN: Well, let's talk about the specific issues this child had to confront. One, I guess, authorities were very concerned about the issue of embarrassment, even though this child was breast-fed at home, right?

COHEN: Well, yes, I mean, this child was breast-fed at home. The mother said that he nursed sort of once a month or so, not very often. I mean I guess it sort of depends on the child. If it's something that he's doing once a month for 10 minutes in his own bedroom with his mother, there's not necessarily cause for embarrassment. The mother says he was only embarrassed when reporters came up to him and started asking about it.

So I think embarrassment is more of an issue once it becomes something public. I mean, I spoke with a woman [Tuesday] who was still nursing her 5-year-old twins, and she says, "The way I do it is when they say, 'Mommy, I want to nurse,' we go and nurse; we don't do it in public, we do it in our own home, and weeks can go by where they don't ask."

ZAHN: Why are people so squeamish about it? Is it the issue of the sexuality that arises around it?

COHEN: I think that's a big issue. I think that some people say, it's one thing for a 6-month-old to be nursing, but an 8- year-old knows about sexual things. They know, or many of them know, that breasts are sexual things. They see Hooters commercials. They see breasts being used to sell cars; maybe they feel that way.

Who knows? Every 8-year-old is different. You have children, you know that they're not all the same. The folks who advocate this kind of extended breast-feeding, or I guess I should say, not really advocating, but say there's nothing wrong with it. They say, "Look, for these 8-year-olds, their mothers' breasts are not sexual. For them, it's a form of comfort."

But I know when I started talking about this just with my friends and colleagues, I mean, people flipped out. They just think it's very odd. And I think you're right -- I think one of the reasons is that breasts are sexual.

ZAHN: Yes, this case is so unusual because of the age of the kid. But don't you think in general, there still is a bit of discomfort in this nation about the whole issue of breast-feeding, particularly breast-feeding in public?

COHEN: Absolutely. I mean, it's really been relatively recent that women were able to breast-feed in public. I remember my mother nursed me and my siblings, and she got extraordinary amounts of grief from it from everyone ... even when she wasn't doing it in public.

So it's really just in the past couple of decades that it's been OK to nurse your little tiny baby out in public. So this society really has some squeamish feelings about breast-feeding.

And then I think as the child gets older, it gets even worse. I mean, the mothers that I talked to [Tuesday] who are still breast-feeding their children, they said, "Look, I don't do this out in public; I do it in my own home." And it's gotten to the point that even the friends that they select are people who are supportive of breast-feeding a 6-year-old.




Back to the top