A few nights ago I was holding Suzi as she squirmed uncomfortably and whined. Her daddy pointed out that she might want to breastfeed. "Tell her you want the boobie," he said to Suzi. She looked at me and smiled, then pointed her chubby little finger at my breast and said booh-bee. She got such a kick out of calling it by name, and her proud little smile just melted my heart. At the same time, though, a wave of panic came over me. Was she going to use this word for it everywhere? In front of friends and, worse, family? The glazed, irritated expressions of half my distant relatives flashed through my mind. They would surely be whispering "by the time a kid can ask for it, it's time to wean her, for gosh sakes!" Did I really want to subject myself to all that scrutiny?
It took about twenty minutes for me to decide to place my daughter's needs ahead of theirs.
Rewind twenty years or so. A mother whose daughter I went to school with was attending storytime at the library with a group of five-year-olds and their mothers. Her toddler son (about two and a half years old) was there as well. During the reading, the little boy walked up to his mother and requested tit. She obliged, and for the past two decades has served as anecdotal evidence of Mothers Who Breastfeed Too Long. Little did we know she was extending the benefits of breastfeeding for her son. I never even noticed their nursing session was taking place, but my mom seemed to think everyone else saw her "flop her boob out" and feed him. This toddler-nurser wasn't like the other mothers. My mom weaned me when I was five months old, and I'd wager most of the other moms in our group weaned by then as well, if they breastfed at all. The long-term breastfeeding mom ended up raising a high-school valedictorian. The other mothers did not. She must have been doing something right!
Because of this experience and the dialogue that followed, I spent two decades of my life thinking extended breastfeeding was gross and weird. Imagine my surprise when I turned into one of those mothers myself. It was never my intention; my original goal was to breastfeed for six months. Then a year. As Suzi's first birthday approached it became more and more obvious that her heart would be broken if I weaned her so abruptly. So here I am, breastfeeding a 15-month-old with no end in sight. I know in my heart it's best for her. How else can I ensure that if I get a stomach bug, she won't? (It's happened.) When she refuses to eat anything but Ritz crackers, how can I be sure she's getting any decent nourishment? I love my little girl and I will nurse her for as long as she needs.
And I am not alone. Amy at Crunchy Domestic Goddess wrote a brilliant post on nursing a preschooler. She prefaced it with this thought:
While I’m OK with the fact that I am [nursing my preschooler], it’s not something I try to draw attention to either... It’s not the most socially acceptable thing to do here in the
This sentiment is common among mothers nursing older children, as they are faced with an impossible choice: Do I deny my child this irreplaceable nourishment and bonding, or do I go against the grain of society? If she chooses to continue breastfeeding she may become a pariah, but if she stops nursing before she and her child are ready she is not following her maternal instincts, which can be agonizing and harmful.
For example, I read about one nursing mother whose three-year-old son had leukemia. Breastfeeding became vitally important to them. Had she weaned him at the age society expects she would not have been able to offer him the comfort, nutrition, or protection of breastfeeding during the most painful and frightening time of his life. After chemotherapy treatments, breastmilk may be one of the few things a child can digest without vomiting!
In The Ultimate Breastfeeding Book of Answers, Dr. Jack Newman debunks the ridiculous theory that once a baby reaches six months, mother's breastmilk is devoid of any value and the mother is only continuing to nurse the baby because she is "getting something out of it." As he points out, the idea that a mother derives sexual pleasure from nursing a child is symptomatic of a perverted society (see Chapter 19, "Breastfeeding the Toddler”). People have grown accustomed to the idea that breasts are primarily for pleasing men, and are only on loan to babies for six-month stretches.
It is widely known that the AAP recommends breastfeeding for at least a year, and longer if it is mutually desired by mother and child. The World Health Organization recommends nursing for two years. The general public implores us to wean ASAP. Our society is in desperate need of remedial education on the purpose of women's breasts. I am so thankful that I live in a state where women can breastfeed anytime and anywhere, covered or not, no matter how old the child is, and I plan to continue exercising my right to do so. However, the law is no help at all for mothers who crave acceptance from their friends, families, and even strangers.
I am a member of our local breastfeeding coalition and will begin teaching a Breastfeeding Basics class for expectant parents in November. Last month I attended the class a friend was teaching to prepare myself. At the end of the class we showed a short video to reiterate the points covered, and it featured a number of nursing mother-baby pairs. When a nursing toddler came onto the screen there were audible snickers. I thought, what are they laughing about? Then I remembered they had probably never seen a baby nursing, let alone a toddler--and if they had it was probably not in the context of acceptance. Although their giggles made me feel like I was in ninth grade sex ed class again, I couldn't blame them. Most people have never heard of nursing an older child and have no idea why anyone would want to do it. Below are a few ideas nursing moms can put into practice to help these people learn.
1) Integrate dialogue about nursing into your children's daily lives. First impressions are hard to overcome, so it helps if children learn at an early age that breastfeeding is the norm. Instead of buying your child a baby doll with a bottle, buy one without. Then teach the child that babies are fed from mommy's breasts. If your child is a girl you can even let her pretend to nurse the baby. I have friends whose children do this and it's a refreshing change. Remembering the hundreds of times I fed my own dolls a bottle, it's no wonder I had to work to overcome my attitudes about breastfeeding! Society had set me up to think breastfeeding was the exception and bottlefeeding the rule. Breastfeeding dialogue will probably come naturally if there is a baby sibling involved, or if a child is breastfed long enough to discuss it. Children won't think breastfeeding at any age is unusual until someone tells them it is!
2) Breastfeed your toddler in public as you are comfortable. This doesn't mean "whipping out a boob" as some people like to phrase it; I am discreet and half the time no one but savvy fellow moms realize I am nursing. You never know when a nursing mom whose child is nearing the one-year mark is going to see you. Your actions may plant a seed of thought in her head and empower her to keep nursing if she was previously unsure of what to do. Furthermore, people need to witness real moms nursing toddlers. While reading Mothering Magazine I came across an article about breastfeeding as portrayed in movies ("Reel Milk" by Sarah Rubenstein-Gillis, Sept-Oct 2008). The most prominent depictions of nursing are comical; for example, a man might accidentally drink a little breastmilk and then spew it dramatically across the room when he realizes it is not cow's milk. If this is the only information routinely given to the public about breastfeeding, it should be no surprise that they are getting the impression breastfeeding is embarrassing and makes people uncomfortable. The more people realize how ordinary and pleasant an experience it can be for mother, child and onlookers alike, the closer it will come to being the norm. There are, of course, times when mothers are asked by an ignorant employee to discontinue a nursing session. At least it is preferable, though, when the mother being victimized is confident and familiar with her rights and can stand up for herself. It's hard to say how many inexperienced, timid moms must be humiliated and inconvenienced, perhaps even pressured to end their nursing relationships, before the first mom comes along and fights back. Most occurrences of this kind end with an apology to the mother and the news coverage they often attract serves to further educate the general public on the legal rights of breastfeeding moms.
3) Don't let anyone get away with publicly condemning mothers who choose to nurse their toddlers. Back when I was still the inexperienced mother of an infant, I read a Babytalk Magazine article in which nursing a toddler was portrayed in a negative way. The author said she saw a woman in a park breastfeeding her "sturdy toddler" and thought "Yuck! She really should wean that kid." At the time, I silently reassured myself that Suzi would be finished nursing by twelve months. Then, a couple of issues later, a reader wrote in to say she was angry about the article. Since Babytalk is usually so supportive of breastfeeding, she viewed the attitudes in the article as a step in the wrong direction. Her comment pointed me in the direction I needed to go. More importantly, if a mainstream magazine runs an unfavorable article and is subsequently flooded with emails from concerned readers, perhaps next time they will publish something more helpful. Since so many moms read these inexpensive or free magazines, getting them to commit their support to long-term breastfeeding is a major victory.
4) Debunk the myths whenever you get a chance. Many people discontinue their nursing relationships for what they think are good reasons. "He was getting teeth!" is a popular one. While some babies may bite their mothers, mine rarely has. I thought I'd have to wean once Suzi had opposing teeth growing in, but it turns out I was worried over nothing. The times I have been bitten were not as bad as I'd expected; some mothers expect blood and gore to be intrinsic to nursing a toddler, but it's just not so in the majority of cases.
5) Talk about it! In November when I start teaching our local Breastfeeding Basics class I will be proud to mention that my toddler is still nursing. When I was pregnant with Suzi, a mom in the breastfeeding coalition mentioned she nursed her daughter until she turned two, and she would have nursed longer had she not been planning to try for another baby and didn't want to wean during her pregnancy. Although I was a bit shocked at the time, her mention of nursing her toddler was highly instrumental in my decision to continue nursing Suzi. Now I can appreciate what an amazing role model she is.
If we breastfeed our toddlers and talk about it rather than keeping it hidden for the sake of our prudish society’s sensibilities, more and more people will realize how beneficial it is. I hope that one day children will grow up not batting an eye when they see a woman breastfeeding her two- or three-year-old. Until then, we have some work to do!
Want to read more about breastfeeding education? Check out the other articles in Motherwear's Carnival at these blogs:
Poked and Prodded
Stop Drop and Blog