As a lactation consultant, childbirth educator and doula, I rarely discussed how long I breastfed. Students and clients knew I’d passed American Academy of Pediatrics [AAP] and the World Health Organization [WHO] initial recommendations.
Both recommend exclusive breastfeeding the first 6 months of an infant’s life. AAP recommends breastfeeding for a year and then, as long “as is desired by mother and baby.” WHO goes further and recommends breastfeeding until “age two or beyond.”
If I discussed how long I breastfed, I feared being called “radical” or “militant.” Given a choice, I prefer “passionate” or “dedicated” describe my nursing beliefs. I was afraid of dismissive comments like “she’s one of those women.” I wanted to be trusted, taken seriously. I’d studied and earned my titles.
Exactly how long did I nurse my children? Do you remember Time Magazine’s cover story in the spring of 2012? The photo of the mom nursing her 3-year-old? No shock at my house. We nursed well past 3. My family didn’t find it shocking, vulgar or sexual. Honestly, the emotional hype was lost on us.
We extended breastfed with child-led weaning. My three children decided when to wean. Sis nursed the longest, slightly past her 6th birthday. My youngest, The Batman, weaned earliest, stopping soon after turning 5. It’s unfair to middle, Felicia, to say she weaned shortly after her 6th birthday. Here’s why:
Middle kids spend their life trying to keep up with the oldest. As F.’s 4th birthday approached, she skipped days between nursings. So many busy things to do, she couldn’t be bothered. Cabinets needed climbed, clothes changed, dogs chased and so much more.
Then, she got sick. Very sick. This part of our journey is another post. To sum it up, many days only breastmilk down stayed down and wasn’t thrown up. Near- empty breasts swelled again, full with milk. I relactated. After this life-changing illness, she nursed for 2 more years. Without it, she would’ve weaned about 4.
Breastfeeding past the age of two isn’t really for a child’s main source of nourishment. Yet, it clearly became F.’s main sustenance during the illness. She needed it. That’s how a momma’s body works for her children.
If you’re still with me, you may wonder or imagine what nursing an older child looks like. If you’d known us then, you may or may not have known we still nursed. We didn’t hide it, didn’t flaunt it, we just did it. You may have thought I held a lanky, napping 4-year-old. Looking closer, you may have realized she was indeed breastfeeding. Or, you may not have given us a second glance.
Nursing older children looks like many things. It looks like comfort after a sibling squabble; healing for a broken arm; distraction for stitches in a cut toe; and it may have looked like something finally staying down in an upset tummy. It’s a napping, summer-sweaty exhausted child; it’s a tired momma on a bench in Times Square or a castle garden in Germany; a dozing child in church, meetings, or restaurants; and it’s a very good deterrent to the complete near-nuclear meltdown of an unreasonable twinkie-begging 3-year-old in the grocery store.
Nursing older children looks like maternal antibodies to the current community cold. It’s a perfectly adjusted formula promoting physical, social, cognitive, and emotional health and development.
To us, it looked like the path of least resistance — our parenting motto. Parents face unavoidable challenges and obstacles. We choose the least resistant path when we can. It’s one of three tenets of attachment parenting, according to Dr. William Sears, Sr. Most importantly, in our hearts, it was and remains the right thing for our family.
I remember those days with sweet recollections. My sister said I’d never realize the final nursing was indeed the last one if we practiced child-led weaning. Nursings grow further and further apart until they are no more. When it happens you don’t realize it’s the last time. One day, you awake and they’re no longer nursing.
When my youngest was born, I was elated to share the breastfeeding relationship one more time. I savored each nursing with sweaty long legs flopped over my lap and busy dirty hands slowed to sleep. There are no regrets.
As I reminisced, I recalled a typical day:
7am: A 3-year-old next to me, sleepily, blindly, snuggles up, feels for the opening in my pajamas and grabs a morning sip. Duration? Maybe 5 minutes for another 30 minutes of sleep. That’s a pretty good deal for this not-a-morning-person momma. (Yes, we also believe in the family bed. Again, another post.)
8am: Breakfast. Normal breakfast food. Extended breastfed children eat breakfast just like non-extended breastfed children. Some occasionally eat bad-for-you sugared cereal, some munch organic fruit or homemade gluten free waffles with extra eggs for protein. Occasionally, they may even grab a drive thru biscuit.
9-11am: Play, empty the lower cabinets for Mom, help with the laundry, (i.e., dumping out the clean clothes so the dog has a soft spot for a nap) watch the same video a million times or listen to the same CD 40 times, carry the car keys around in a tattered glitter gift bag while clik-clikking around in plastic Cinderella high heels.
11:15am: Fall off the toy box, run to Mom for a quick nurse and Band-aid.
11:17am: Empty the cabinets again since Mom filled them back up, wash Mom’s makeup brush in the dog’s water bowl — well, because it was dirty.
11:30am: Look! Mom is on the phone, sitting down, in one place! Opportunity nursing – this time a little longer – easy-target Mom! (Major benefit: nursing little ones don’t talk and interrupt adult phone conversations. However, sticky dirty fingers often end up in mom’s mouth and make her talk funny. Multi-tasking is easy for those extended nursers and with simple self entertainment.) Duration? Direct ration to length of phone conversation.
12:30pm: Snuggle with mom in the rocking chair. Read a book. Nurse for 5-15 minutes. Fall asleep for an afternoon nap.
2:30pm: Waking up a little disoriented is the perfect time for a “milky” snack. Like most moms, she’s rushed around the house getting things done during nap time. After-nap nursing grounds and re-introduces the child to the day. It’s also great time for mom to sit down, maybe put her feet up and breathe. Lasts 5-15 minutes or fewer, depends on what sister or the dog is doing and how enticing it is to join them.
3:00-4:00pm: Run errands with mom. Nursing from the backseat is impossible and never an issue. Listen to Raffi’s Going to the Zoo a hundred times. (Anyone still listen to Raffi?)
4:15pm: Story in the rocker and 15 minutes of nursing to chill after running errands.
5pm: Dad’s home. Yay!
5:30pm: Supper. Again, supper just like the non-extended nursing kiddos.
6pm: “What? Mom’s talking to Auntie Julie on the phone? Woo hoo! Bet I can nurse now…wait, what’s dad doing outside? Where’s the dog?” – See? An extended nursing child’s brain works exactly like a non-extended nursing child’s brain! (Although science says the IQ could be a few points higher in the nursing child. Just sayin’.)
8pm: Bedtime. Mom lies down to nurse. Wait…Mom, MOM!! Are you asleep?!?!
Typical day. Not so different from a non-extended breastfeeding child’s day. About an hour or so with a child actually at the breast. The same hour a non-nursing child may have easily spent in her mother’s arms.
The rest of our children’s lives looked like the lives of many others. My older two went to preschool through first grade at the same little school. Rarely did they nurse at the school after they were 3 years old. Not because I didn’t want to but because that’s how it happened, or didn’t happen, for us. I remember picking up Felicia after a long day. Kindergarten and aftercare, too. She needed to reconnect. She wanted to nurse, but asked to go into a quiet, empty room. Her best friend still nursed. She wasn’t embarrassed. She wanted privacy and quiet.
Extended breastfeeding worked for our family. We would do it all over again. We didn’t live secluded lives on a communal farm. Although there is nothing wrong with that, especially if it means all-you-can-eat organic veggies. Active community members, we also went to church, pre-school, grade school, music class, dance, and horseback riding. There was no scarlet “N” on our chests. Our children were healthy. Very much like the others.
Now in college and nursing school, our two young adults don’t look funny, talk strange or have weird obsessions with breasts. The youngest is a pre-teen. He rock climbs, plays piano and violin, is on the X-box a little too much and is obsessed with Legos. He’s certainly not a momma’s boy (which kills me in a way). It didn’t make them crazy or inappropriately dependent on us (okay, they do call from school needing money; does that count?).
Sis traveled twice to Europe with friends at 14 and 19. Felicia spent several weeks in Florida as a working student on a horse farm at 16. They’re pretty independent individuals.
Here’s the catch. When thinking about writing this piece, I talked with each of them about extended nursing. Sis couldn’t believe she nursed past the age of 6. None of them remembered nursing. Yes, really! No recognition flashed through their eyes or across their faces, I swear. I believe nature takes care of some things.
I asked if they chose to have children would they nurse them past 2 years. Felicia didn’t really know, but wasn’t adamantly against it or grossed out by it. Sis’s nonchalant response was “if they want to.”
The Batman is young for that question. He has another witness for breastfeeding. This summer, I tried to get him to part with some of his Legos. He has like an infinite number of them, trunks full, and they keep reproducing (I know, another post.) Anyway, this was our conversation.
Me: “You need to go through your Legos and pass some of them on.”
The Batman: “Mom, me giving up any of my Legos, is like asking a three-month-old to wean from breastfeeding.”
Me: “So, you’re saying that at our house it’s never gonna happen – you’re never giving up any Legos?”
The Batman: “Exactly.”
I’m thinking if he chooses to have babies, there’s a good chance they’ll be breastfed.
There are many misconceptions about extended breastfeeding. These are some our family encountered:
“Don’t they bite once they have teeth?” Do you use your teeth when you drink from a straw? You might, but does it work? If babies bite – it’s usually when they’re first getting teeth and maybe sometimes when they are realizing they can get a response from Mom. This commonly happens around a year or younger. So, no, 3 year olds don’t normally use their teeth to nurse, nor do they use their teeth to sip from a straw.
“Aren’t you always feeding them?” No, at this point, breastfeeding is not their main source of nourishment. Although we’ve learned there are many nutrients the older child gets from breastfeeding, it’s no longer their main caloric intake.
“You won’t still be making milk.” Wrong. Borrowing from the movie, Field of Dreams, “If you nurse it, milk will come.” It’s simple biology and physiology. A nursing baby becomes a nursing child. Momma’s hormones respond and make just the right amount of milk. Wah-lah! There you have it. No expiration date on how long the hormones and breasts will work together on this. Pretty simple.
“It’s sexually inappropriate.” Um. No. The cover of Sports Illustrated may be sexually inappropriate. Reruns of Nip/Tuck or True Blood are usually always sexually inappropriate for children. Breastfeeding? Notsomuch. #sorrynotsorry
“You can’t possibly have the time in your day to keep nursing your child.” We aren’t talking about a newborn who only relies on breastmilk. We are talking about a child. If she wants to nurse at an inconvenient time, she may easily be distracted or talked into a piece of fruit, popsicle or another rerun of Barney. (Cut me slack, pretty sure I’m the oldest momma on here.)
According to Katherine Dettweyler, if allowed to wean on their own, most children would wean somewhere between the ages of 2.5 and 7.0 years, with 2.5 years being the age in the middle. Our family fits into these statistics. It’s just not something everyone chooses.
Dr. Dettweyler is an anthropology Ph.D. at the University of Delaware. A well-respected author of leading research on the duration of breastfeeding among primates and breastfeeding advocate, she’s written multiple books and articles on breastfeeding.
Courtesy of K. Dettweyler, here are some of my favorite “fun facts to know and tell” — nod to my 7th grade teacher, Mr. Simmons, who first hooked me on that phrase:
*Humans (that’s us) take longer to mature and reproduce than other mammals. This late age predicts 3-6 years of breastfeeding – based on the ability to have babies being around ages 12-20 years.
*Most mammals nurse from birth until the end of infancy. Infancy ends when the first molars permanent molars come through. In humans (us, again) these are the 6-year-molars. They’re in the back of the mouth behind the baby teeth and erupt about the time the first baby teeth are lost.
These are my favorite facts because they show how our family fits in the larger, anthropological picture. That, and I’ve been known to randomly recite them for friends and relatives giving me strange looks while nursing an older child. Along with “Michael Jordan breastfed until he was 3!” Word has it that his mom, Deloris Jordan, believes that’s why he is such an incredible athlete. Since my son just ‘discovered’ basketball, he’s hoping there’s some truth to that statement.
Our families live states away, but were mostly supportive of us. My older sister extended breastfed her youngest. (Thanks, you paved the way for us!) With my youngest, as I was nursing they’d ask, “Is he STILL nursing?” I’d tilt my head, and reply, “Of course! He’s only 48 months old!”
Extended breastfeeding is a choice – it’s a choice with many benefits not even mentioned here. If you’d like to find more about these benefits, (and about celebrities who extended breastfeed or were breastfed for awhile) I’d suggest these links:
These are our experiences. I am not implying working moms cannot extended breastfeed. There’s not room for everything. I’ve worked outside the home at times while breastfeeding and extended breastfeeding, attachment parenting to the best of my abilities the entire time.
Breastfeeding has become an inflammatory topic. This is simply my story. It’s not judgement or discrimination. It’s written with an intent of sharing and informing.