Is child-led weaning natural?

AP websites will wax poetic about how natural it is to let your child nurse until she is ready to give up nursing. I’ve actually ‘met’ someone online who described mother-led weaning as ‘stunted nursing’ (as opposed to her perfect method of ‘full term nursing’. Yes, I did a lot of eye-rolling too). But is it truly natural to have your infant-cum-toddler-cum-preschooler, etc. dictate for you, the mother, when to stop nursing a child? While there probably are human cultures who routinely let their children nurse for as long as they want (Dettwyler claims there are, after all, though she declines to name them), a short Web and bookshelf search was sufficient to ascertain this is hardly a universal practice.

As a matter of fact, active weaning behavior is common to almost all mammals. Usually, once a mother’s fertility returns, she starts rejecting her nurslings – at first just by pushing them away, later on by kicking or biting them. The evolutionary rationale for this was first proposed by Robert Trivers, a comparative zoologist (not a pediatrician, though 😉 ) in 1974, a concept he called “Parent-offspring conflict”. The basic idea is that the mother has a biological urge to pass on her genes, i.e, reproduce as much as possible. The current child, however, has an opposing biological urge to mooch off Mom as much as he possibly can, so he can thrive. This causes a conflict of interests between the parent and child which needs to be solved – usually by the parent initially giving in to the child, but gradually turning a blind eye, or outright denying, his demands. The “weaning conflict” (google it) is part of the larger parent-offspring conflict.

Examples abound in the primate world. For example, here’s a PETA webpage about baboons:

In many ways, they are very similar to people. Like human parents, adult baboons tend to newborns around the clock. Babies stay close to their mothers, clinging to them as they forage for food and snuggling into their laps for a nap in the afternoon sun. Drawn to the nourishment and close contact provided by their mothers’ milk, young baboons even have tantrums when their mothers attempt to wean them.

…Tantrums, eh? Sounds familiar…

Here’s a webpage about rhesus monkeys:

During early infancy, rhesus macaques nurse exclusively for the first two weeks of life, after which they begin to experiment with solid food. At about four months of age, rhesus mothers begin to resist the attempts of their offspring to nurse, and young rhesus macaques are fully weaned by the birth of their next sibling (Fooden 2000).

Oh, the horror! How dare those monkey mothers resist the poor widdle babies’ attempts to nurse?! How damned unnatural!

Let’s have a look at humans. Remember the Gussii of Kenya? Well, when the mothers decide to wean, according to anthropologist Meredith Small (Author of Our Babies, Ourselves):

Once weaned – a process that is assisted by painting the breast with bitter herbs, ignoring the pleas of a hungry child, or even slapping it when it reaches for the breast – the child is expected to contribute to the household. (p.95)

Ditto for the !Kung San of Botswana, another hunter-gatherer society which Small also likes to hold up as a shining example of “natural parenting”:

Once a mother knows she is pregnant again, she will coat her breasts with bitter herbs and gradually wean the child. (p. 82)

So much for tandem nursing, as well. An even more extreme example can be found when studying the Ache of Paraguay:

Weaning is an extremely unpleasant experience . . . with
children screaming, hitting, and throwing tantrums for several weeks. . . .
Some mothers who became pregnant very soon after the birth of a child simply continued to breast-feed all the way through their next pregnancy, and then, if the interbirth interval was too short (i.e., less than two years), would simply kill the newborn child and continue nursing the first. (Hill and Hurtado 1996, pp. 220–221)

It could be argued that unlike all these human and animal examples, we in the developed world have enough nutritional resources to nourish ourselves, a baby, and a toddler, the fact remains that prosperity such as ours is very much the exception, rather than the norm, in the natural world. There is also the not-so-small issue of how all these animals and human prmitives do not seem to be walking around with emotional scars as a result of their parental rejection. On the contrary, the push towards independence apparently does a body good, if those who raphsodize about primitive cultures and “nature” should be believed. As does showing a bit of maternal mettle to your kids once in a while, apparently.

If you want to wean until your child wants to stop…your breasts, your kid, your prerogative. But don’t be awfully surprised if some of your fellow humans think nursing your 6-year-old just because he wants to is unnatural and weird. They’re not ignorant, they’re merely following human nature. ;).

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6 Responses

  1. Oh, the horror! How dare those monkey mothers resist the poor widdle babies’ attempts to nurse?! How damned unnatural!

    Is this how “mainstream parents” regard the feelings of their ‘widdle babies’??? Do mainstream parents know that you are representing them with this caustic attitude?

  2. Well, apparently mainstream Rhesus monkeys think that way. Most mainstream human (Western) mothers don’t wean their children in anything resembling this manner, though some of your favorite primitive tribes who do everything oh-so-“naturally” apparently do. Which was sorta the point of this post…not that you bothered to read it in full, didja? 😉

  3. Rachel – sense of humor? nope? Didn’t think so.
    Missed the point of this post? Yeah, we can all see you did.

  4. Sorry! Didn’t realize this blog was a farce, thanks for clarifying…boy is my face red!

  5. It is important to note, however, that the average age of weaning world-wide is 4.2, not one, which is the AAP’S recommendation of nursing. And, looking at the natural world, gorilla’s nurse their young until an average of six times the gestation length. Here’s a good article: http://www.kathydettwyler.org/detwean.html

    Another important note about nursing through a pregnancy is your milk will return to colostrum to meet the newborns nursing needs, and continue to meet the newborns nutritional needs, even if an older child continues to nurse after the baby. This shows that the nutritional value of breastmilk is more important to the newborn; however, the older child will still reap the immunological protections that breastmilk provides.

    • Holy guacamole Batman, it’s hard to fathom that in this day and age, people still believe that 4.2 ” average wordlwide weaning age” crap. Please see here (and the whole 3-part series if you wish).

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