Thursday

breastfeeding a toddler: my soapbox

i had The View on in the background the other day. i wasn't following it closely, but i heard elizabeth hasslelbeck, a breastfeeding mother, relay a sentiment i hear a lot in our culture: "if they're old enough to ask for it, they're old enough to be done breastfeeding."

why are people so uncomfortable with nursing toddlers?

perhaps that's a dumb question, when breastfeeding itself makes many Americans downright phobic. we've sexualized women's bodies to a degree that we barely bat an eye at near-pornographic billboards and music videos, but nursing in public (even discreetly) raises people's ire and facebook removes all photographs of nursing moms and babies, deeming them "inappropriate."

we've forgotten that the chief function of breasts is to nourish infants.

even if people accept breastfeeding as a natural, healthful thing, there is a definite cultural bias against nursing babies who are "too old." why do people cast this judgment so readily? certainly, everyone is entitled to her personal preference, but that's just it--decisions about breastfeeding and weaning are personal, and what's right can vary from mother to mother or child to child. prescriptive blanket statements about when breastfeeding should end are unhelpful and unnecessary.

there are at least two schools of thought in ending a breastfeeding relationship: mother-led weaning and child-led weaning. a mother may want to wean in order to return to work or simply because it's been long enough. the idea that "if a baby is old enough to ask for it, she's too old to be breastfed" comes from a mother-led weaning approach, and for many women, that sentiment may be true.

but for others, breastfeeding a toddler, (even one old enough to say or sign "milk"), remains a satisfying experience and one that they may not want to end. breastfeeding is about nutrition, but it is also about comfort and nurturing, and some mothers wish to nurse until the child initiates weaning. my goal was to nurse dylan one year (the time recommended by doctors and the point at which a baby can tolerate cow's milk.) after that, we'd play it by ear.

dylan and i have recently stopped nursing, at twenty months. if i hadn't been pregnant, we probably would have nursed longer. as my milk supply decreased, we dropped feedings until i was only nursing her at bedtime. as my pregnancy progressed and i became more uncomfortable, jim and i took turns putting her to bed, and dylan wouldn't nurse when he put her down. then she would only nurse sometimes when i put her down, and now (i think), we are done.

ending our nursing relationship was gradual and it happened over the course of several months. it wasn't strictly mother-led or child-led, and it felt like a natural progression. at first, it was really hard when jim would put her to bed if i were home, because i enjoyed nursing dylan. it got easier, and i'm glad to be done nursing dylan a few months before james comes, so that dylan doesn't feel like her position is being usurped.

this is all likely more than some may care to hear, but i wanted to share my positive perspective on nursing a toddler as well as our approach to weaning. not every child who is "old enough to ask" is "too old" to breastfeed, and moms shouldn't feel pressured to wean if they and their children are still happily nursing. moms put enough pressure on themselves (and one another.)

15 comments:

Trisha said...

Thanks for sharing! I know I got some 'looks' from my family when I said I would nurse Sam past 1. It definitely was strange to them. Of course, I was also the first woman in my family to nurse...so the whole experience was new to everyone! I eventually stopped nursing Sam at 14 months when he eventually lost interest. I knew he was ready when he was more interested in reading books in the morning than nursing :)

michelle said...

i nursed elias for 14 months and piper for 12. i think that a lot of people do have weird stigmas in their minds about breastfeeding, but i agree with you- the purpose of a breast is to nourish a child. breastfeeding isn't always easy, but i'm glad i was able to nurse for as long as i did.

and seriously- why do people freak out about a breast used for what it was designed to do, but they don't blink in any other context. ironic, i'd say.

Amy from Occupation: Mommy said...

Great post! I nursed all three of my girls for about a year and that was enough for us. But if people want to nurse longer, they should! And the comment about "If they are old enough to ask for it..." is just silly. Isn't a newborn's fretful crying really asking to be nursed?

Becky said...

The other day Megan gave me a pat before latching on and said "Nurse, milk, mine" and gave a big grin. I adore nursing a child who can tell me just how happy she is to nurse. :-)

TAMI said...

It's been a long few years since our last one finished nursing, but the criticisms of which you post float into many other areas of mothering. One person feeling uncomfortable alongside the choices of another. People would be a whole lot happier if they focused their energy on living their lives the best they can rather than being sure everyone else is living the same way. It's VERY EXHAUSTING to try to live more than one life at a time ... for everyone!

Penny said...

Mine were both nursed beyond two years old and were weaned by the combination of me reducing the opportunity and their own readiness. I can't understand why people criticise other people's choices about length of breastfeeding. Breast milk is a great product, it's free, has health benefits for the child and mother and is designed for humans. I'd rather people got concerned with how long people are going to keep eating battery raised hen's eggs ... seems like a better cause to get het up about to me.

Boobs are great things - food for babies, toys for daddies - leave the length of their use for either up to the mutual participants....

Berji's domain said...

Thanks for visiting my blog!
I nursed until my daughter was 13 months and then she weaned herself. After doing a little research, I found out the WHO actually promotes breastfeeding until the age of 2!

aussiehen said...

Like Berji said the WHO recommendation is exclusive for 6 months and then to 2 years and beyond. The world average weaning age is around 4 years so if so few are are feeding after 1 year in the Western world imagine how long some children are feeding to create this average :-)

I've always found nursing to be the ultimate parenting tool, it works to put my toddler to sleep, to calm him during a tantrum, to soothe a bumped head or just when he's fragile and unhappy.
He also is rarely sick and when he does have a cold it's always minor and over very quickly and I've always contributed that to the power of breastmilk.
He had a very bad bout of gastro and I firmly believe that it was nursing that kept him out of hospital.
I'm pregnant and while we've dropped the number of feeds and it is at times uncomfortable he's still nursing 3-4 times a day. Luckily my milk supply hasn't dropped much so far. I'm hoping to tandem feed but will just go with the flow so to speak!

Bri said...

very well said! thank you for writing it :)

Laur D. said...

i'm not a mama yet, so i haven't had the breast feeding experience, but i must say i COMPLETELY agree with you. it's amazing how taboo it is in our culture, because of just how sexually oriented our culture is. it's really pathetic, and it really just taints what is a very natural and beautiful thing. i def. don't want to rush weening just because the "world" has an appropriate time-line, i want it to be a natural progression.

O'Brien said...

I just want to mention how CUTE it is to see a new foal or calf suckle on it's mother's breast.......and we don't think that our culture is backwards sometimes?

I'm rereading "My Ishmael" it really relates to this sort of mentality. If you haven't read these books they are wonderful.

Tiaras said...

so very well said . . . I just finished nursing my 33 month old (3rd child) and it was all her telling me no more momma. I was pressured to stop nursing my son at 14 months - he didn't want to stop and I didn't want to stop, but everyone else wanted us to stop. It was my first baby and I didn't have the backbone to stand up to hubbie or MIL, so I stopped him from nursing. I was pregnant with my second and when she was born, my son asked to nurse again, even though he had not been nursing for 6 months. I let him and I didn't care what anyone said. He was happy and I was happy and the new baby was happy. He only nursed for 2 more months, but he was ready at that point. I feel like cheated him out of 6 months of nursing and bonding with me. My 2nd daughter weaned at 16 months all on her own.

Mary Avery said...

I love your article! I just weaned gradually at 14 months. I probably would have gone longer, also, if I was not pregnant. It just became so painful I could hardly bear it. It was so gradual that I don't think my son ever truly realized what was happening and he was never traumatized by it nor has he seemed to notice. It made it a lot easier on me!

Misty said...

i'm late to the party, but the preciousness of BFing is made so much clearer to me as i struggle to get avery to nurse more.... i'm w/ some of the above in that i weaned S at 13 mo and C at 14 mo (being pg both times). i could have mentally gone on longer w/ both and my girlfriends definitely thought it was time we quit... so strange!!

Kay Aker said...

I do recall one of my childrens telling me "I need booby for energy."

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