Myth Busting - Average Age Weaning 4.5y

iVillage Member
Registered: 10-14-2003
Myth Busting - Average Age Weaning 4.5y
Tue, 01-08-2008 - 4:17pm

From the Lactavist blog:
Myth Busting - Average Age of Weaning 4.5 Years

Since I've already been accused (again) of being mean this week, let's also gear up to get me accused of being anti-breastfeeding. ;) (For you new readers, that's called me having a sense of humor. It in no way means I am mean or anti-breastfeeding. I can't speak to the former, but the latter couldn't be further from the truth.)

Moving on...

My friend Anna and I have both found ourselves in discussions recently where someone pulled out that old "well the average age of weaning world-wide is 4.5 years" stat when the subject of weaning came up.

I've heard this one bandied about myself several times, including once or twice during the recent weaner-gate fiasco. To be honest, this "stat" has always really bothered me. Not because I don't think mothers should nurse for as long as they and their children desire (I do), but because this stat gets used as a "you're a bad mother" stat for moms who choose to wean prior to age two (or at all, really.)

For your average American mother who chooses to breastfeed for whatever reason, but does not choose to arm herself to the teeth with stats and studies, or who does not hang out with mothers who practice extended or child-led weaning, this stat sounds crazy.

Here's why.

It says the AVERAGE age of weaning is 4.5.

Let's get a reminder of what average means. To get the average age of weaning, you would add up the ages of every child who naturally weaned and then divide that number by the number of children tallied. The average is the result of that division. For every child who falls BELOW 4.5, there has to be a child who lands ABOVE 4.5.

Now, take a moment and think of the conversations you've had with women who allow their children to wean on their own. If I think of my own friends and acquaintances (online, few folks I know offline nursed at all, let alone let their kids wean at their own pace) most kids stopped nursing sometime between 10 months and 3 years. I can think of a *few* instances where the child nursed until 4, but only one or two where someone nursed past 4.5.

Now, for every one of those children who self-weaned prior to age 4.5, there has to be a child who went an equal amount PAST 4.5.

In other words, there'd have to be a TON of nursing 6, 7, 8 and even 9 year olds running around in the world. In fact, there'd have to be an equal number of them as there are children who wean prior to age 4.

Anyone out there believe that to be true? Anyone?

Yeah, me neither. Which makes that stat sound like a total made up piece of crap to a mainstream mother who is weaning her child at 10, 12, 18 or even 24 months. It also makes the person spouting it look like they have an agenda. (Which they do, and that's ok, but when that agenda makes you lose credibility, it's not good.)

Now, I'm not a fan of using anecdotal knowledge to try and push back on "FACT." (See it done all the time with birthing and it drives me nuts.) So, I wanted to find out what the source of this stat was thinking *maybe* there are enough countries with longer nursing periods going on to actually make up that difference.

There's not.

Neither Anna nor myself knew where this stat came from and when we questioned the people throwing the stat around, we didn't get an answer from them either.

That number is totally, 100% made up.

In fact, I ran across a link today to Katherine Dettwyler's "A Natural Age of Weaning" article. This is the article that the 4.5 number seems to come from, which is funny because even Katherine Dettwyler says the number is "made up."

One often hears that the worldwide average age of weaning is 4.2 years, but this figure is neither accurate nor meaningful. A survey of 64 "traditional" studies done prior to the 1940s showed a median duration of breastfeeding of about 2.8 years, but with some societies breastfeeding for much shorter, and some for much longer. It is meaningless, statistically, to speak of an average age of weaning worldwide, as so many children never nurse at all, or their mothers give up in the first few days, or at six weeks when they go back to work. It is true that there are still many societies in the world where children are routinely breastfed until the age of four or five years or older, and even in the United States, some children are nursed for this long and longer. In societies where children are allowed to nurse "as long as they want" they usually self-wean, with no arguments or emotional trauma, between 3 and 4 years of age.

Dettwyler goes on to explain that she (and others) have spent a ton of time researching the weaning ages of animals (who don't have cultural matters weighing in on weaning decisions) and speculating on what the biological weaning age of children *might* be. They looked at issues like length of gestation verses length of breastfeeding, time it takes to double or triple weight verses length of breastfeeding, even introduction of molars to the length of breastfeeding.

Using those criteria, they decided that the "natural" age of weaning for humans was probably somewhere between 2.5 and 7 years of age.

While that's very interesting information, it's also a pretty big window.

Best I can figure, someone decided to split the difference, arrive at 4.5 and start touting it as a "fact." People heard it, believed it and passed it on.

Now, leaving apart the question of whether or not looking at how long other species nurse has anything to do with how long humans nurse, the reality is this is a completely made up fact that does nothing to promote the benefits of long-term nursing.

We do not help our cause when we "rely" on made up facts. Personally, I'd love to see this stat get tossed out the window and for more women to focus on the myriad of stats we DO have to promote breastfeeding and extended breastfeeding.

Incidentally, if you didn't follow the above link to read Dettwyler's piece, I'd strongly encourage you to give it a read. It's quite interesting on many levels, but also brings up a very important point. Dettwyler points out how few studies actually distinguish the benefits of nursing beyond the age of two. In other words, in studies of the impact of long-term breastfeeding, everyone who nurses longer than two years gets lumped in together. Prior to the age of two, things tend to get broken down into blocks of 1, 3 or 6 months.

Wouldn't it be great to see some REAL data come out that actually looks at the difference between nursing to three years as opposed to two? Or to three and a half as opposed to three? And so on? To really break things down into smaller chunks? A study that examines the composition of milk beyond that second year to find out how the immunities change and what other properties of the milk might change?

Personally, I think it would be interesting information. In terms of the breastfeeding movement, I think it would give CLD and extended nursers some GREAT, factual information they could use to educate nay-sayers about their choices.

To moms who have thrown out that number as a "fact," I'd encourage you to let it go, or at least to clarify how the number came about. To other moms who have had it used against them, here's your info to refute the claim.

And once again, this post is NOT about discrediting breastfeeding or giving reasons why moms should NOT nurse for as long as they wish. It's about promoting the FACTS and not the fiction.


~*~ Catherine, mom to three grown men - Jason, Michael & Joshua and Granma to Christopher & Leia.