Recently, the media has been paying a fair bit of attention to families practicing extended breastfeeding. Extended breastfeeding is a broad term that covers mothers and children who continue their breastfeeding relationships past the age of 1 year. Mothers who encourage and support nursing toddlers are frequently maligned in the press as curiosities, weirdos, or hippy nutcases.
I disagree. I think there are far more of us who practice this than anyone realizes — the fear of public shame often silencing discussion. I think we do ourselves a disservice by not sharing our experiences with other mothers, by discussing this topic in a much broader forum. How can extended breastfeeding be seen as anything other than “freaky” if we don’t normalize it by bringing it out in the open?
I don’t know very many people who set out when pregnant with the specific intention of nursing a toddler.
I certainly didn’t.
The first time I ever encountered the idea that it was okay to breastfeed a toddler was when I was 41wks pregnant with Boy#1. My care provider at the time had to go out of town for a conference, so my care was transferred to another OB/Ped office. While sitting in the waiting room, I noticed a poster on the wall depicting a mom nursing what was clearly a child near the age of 2 years. The statement was fairly terse and matter-of-fact, saying something like “Did you know the WHO recommends breastfeeding until at least age 2?”
I didn’t know.
I went into breastfeeding with small goals: “I will nurse for a month.” We had a fair number of challenges in our first month, but we made it through — “natural” and “naturally” do not mean the same thing and, just because Nature intended my breasts to function in a certain way, it did not mean that they would. We persevered. We overcame. One month became four. Four became six. Soon, we were at a year, a line I’d mentally drawn in the sand when pregnant as the longest I would nurse my child.
But when I looked at him, stopping felt wrong. Since I trusted myself enough to know that eventually the timing would feel right, we kept going. I became pregnant again. We nursed our way through that pregnancy, and tandem nursed for 7 months beyond that. And then it felt right. He was ready to stop. Other than a couple times a few months later when dealing with a stomach illness and fever, he never nursed again.
But Boy#2 was at the breast, and because I’d trusted myself the first time around it was easier to trust myself again. We would figure out when the time was right together.
Boy#2 was much busier. A happy-go-lucky toddler, he’d use me as his touchstone in his day of running around. He nursed less frequently, but would nurse when he needed a moment of quiet in his constant busyness. One year turned into two, two bled into three, and around age four he stopped.
I can’t tell you when he stopped. It was so gradual. This is what people who criticize extended breastfeeding don’t realize: toddlers and preschoolers don’t nurse with the frequency of a small baby, nor should they. They’re eating food, they’re drinking from cups, they’re busybusybusy and easily distracted. Nursing, in our house, became a “don’t offer, don’t refuse” arrangement by age 2. It would probably surprise critics, but sometimes a toddler really does just prefer a glass of water or a piece of cheese. Nursing is less about nutrition at these ages — it’s about connection and security.
By the end, Boy#2 was only nursing once every few weeks. Part of me wishes I could remember that last time and treasure the memory. Part of me is glad that I don’t — watching our children grow up and become fiercely independent of us is bittersweet.
I’m nursing Boy#3 right now — he turns 2 next week. His brothers went through a period of utter fascination with breasts and nursing when he was born, wanting to hear about their own nursing stories. My oldest, with his scientific mind, wanted me to explain in detail how the biology of breastfeeding works. Recently, after a bout of stomach illness ravaged our family, he started talking about how Boy#3 nursing was good because it contained antibodies against the illness I’d also been exposed to. He gets it. He knows how important it is. I hope he carries that knowledge forward with him and uses it to be an amazing support to his future spouse.
I wonder if that doctor knows a poster on his office wall helped dispel the taboo of nursing a toddler? I wonder if he knows how far those ripples extend? I wonder how many other eyes it helped open? It’s often been in the back of my mind when I think about how passive advocacy can often be more effective than in-your-face evangelism. A kind word, a gentle nudge, an open and frank conversation can be very important when supporting a person.
I never set out to nurse my toddlers. There are definitely times when it’s neither easy, nor enjoyable. I’ve gotten feet shoved into my face far more often than I’d like, I’ve been nipped a few times, my nurslings have joyously flashed me to perfect strangers, I’ve even been in a grocery store line-up with a toddler obsessed with shoving both hands down the front of my shirt from his vantage point on the grocery cart. I’ve had to suspend my embarrassment and adopt a wry sense of humor about it all more than once over the years, but hidden in the awkwardness are so many treasured moments.
My youngest never nursed to sleep as a baby, but it’s something he does now at the end of his busy day. Cuddling and nursing in the evening with me, after his brothers have gone to bed is his way of unwinding and reconnecting with me. He says “please” and “thank you” when nursing, I’ve been applauded. I’ve gotten the thumbs up. There are too many special, funny moments to list — all of them written on my heart.
I’m getting better at trusting. I trust that he, too, will stop when he is ready. I see no need to push him, I’m in no rush to make him grow up — he’s rushing towards the Future in a blur. I can’t fight Nature and I don’t intend to. He will stop when the time is right and not one moment before.
I can only hope that I will be ready, too.