It was one of those "why doesn't the floor open up and swallow me" moments for Julie Moyer, a Warminster, Pa., mother of two.
The whole family had gathered to help build an outdoor shed for her in-laws when a 2-by-4 smacked daughter Karlie, 2 1/2 , on the head. As the toddler burst into hysterical tears, everyone rushed over to make sure she was all right.
"She screamed, 'I just want some boobies.' It was so embarrassing. The crowd cleared out pretty quick," said Ms. Moyer, who calmed the crying child by breast-feeding her.
Some call it "closet nursing" -- the breast-feeding that many mothers do, but few discuss. Months and even years after other mothers have weaned their children from the breast, some are still nursing their 2-, 3- and 4-year-olds.
Even among mothers who breast-feed their newborns, the nursing of toddlers is a controversial subject. "I find it disturbing," said Caroline Pollard, a legal assistant from Northeast Philadelphia who weaned her daughter at eight months (shortly after Ms. Pollard returned to work). "I tend to think there is something wrong."
Earlier this year, advice columnist Abigail Van Buren printed a column of letters in response to "Grossed Out Grandma," who complained, "It just doesn't seem right that a 3-year-old child should be running after her mother, lifting her mother's blouse and asking to be breast-fed. Frankly, I find this behavior revolting."
In other cultures, nursing 2-, 3- and 4-year-olds is not uncommon, said Ruth Lawrence, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Rochester (N.Y.) Medical School and the director of the Lactation Study Center there. The worldwide average age of weaning is 4.
In many Third World cultures, breast-feeding serves as the child's main source of nourishment into toddlerhood, and the passage of antibodies from mother to child is an important protector against disease.
But in the United States, most of the physiological advantages of nursing for both mother and baby diminish by the time the baby reaches its first birthday, said Ms. Lawrence.
But children nurse for emotional as well as physical nourishment. "Toddler nursing is for comfort. When they bump their heads they want to nurse," said pediatrician Marianne Neifert, mother of five and author of "Dr. Mom," a child-rearing book.
Dr. Neifert is a well-known professional, a best-selling author, a University of Denver professor and an experienced parent. But she still had to be coaxed into admitting that she nursed her youngest child until close to his 3rd birthday.
Dr. Neifert said it was important for mothers to evaluate why they continued to nurse their children beyond the 2nd birthday.
Family dynamics to examine are the relationship between the husband and wife, the mother's ability to set limits for her children, and whether she is allowing the child enough independence to grow, Dr. .Neifert and other physicians said.
"I discourage nursing over 1 1/2 to 2 years," said pediatrician Donna Antonucci, who specializes, at Albert Einstein Medical Center, in pediatrics for children with disabilities. "A child needs to grow. If they are still doing infant kinds of things when they are 2 1/2 years old, they aren't moving on."
Nursing counselors talk about baby-led weaning, but retired pediatrician William Carey, who teaches behavioral pediatrics at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, said that parents, not babies, should make that kind of decision. "Where else in child-rearing do you put the child totally in charge?" he asked. "If the mother has trouble setting limits in this area, that could lead to not setting limits in other areas."
Further complicating this tangle of conflicting needs is the fact that a child begins to experience sexual awareness around age 2, said child psychiatrist Henri Parens of the Medical College of Pennsylvania.
"I am convinced that breast-feeding in some children can come packaged with some erotic experiencing. In fact, it's expectable," Dr. Parens said. "It is a reason to stop."
But some experts say toddler nursing has its advantages. For one thing, it's a pleasure. If everything else is going well, and the mother is in control of the decision, "I can't see any reason to deprive yourself of the pleasure of going on with it," said Dr. Carey. "After all, life doesn't have that many pleasures."