Old enough to ask for it

When my first baby, now 8, was about 3 months old, I shared a recital with my clarinet quartet.  We had our customary, post-performance gathering of celebration at one of the guys’ homes afterward, and, of course Anna was with me – I went nowhere without her.  I was the only woman in the group and my husband and I were the only couple present with children, so when it came time to breastfeed Anna, I excused myself to an upstairs bedroom.  (I feel compelled to mention that this behavior did not last long for me, since Anna and I were out and about A LOT and she needed to nurse A LOT and I got really sick of feeling exiled … and everyone got used to the fact that Diana was going to breastfeed around them.)

When I returned from nursing Anna, my curious co-workers started asking some questions.

“Does it hurt?”

“Is it … messy?”

“Is ‘special milk’ any different from the stuff you can buy, you know, in a can?”

I was only 3 months into motherhood at that point, but I was confident answering all of their questions and glad they started the conversation.  Things took an interesting turn, though.

“Just as long as I don’t have to look at it.”

“It’s OK when they’re babies, but when they’re old enough to ask for it, that’s just … gross.”

This “old enough to ask for it” business comes up a lot for me (my youngest is 3 and still enjoys “nursies” at wake-up and bedtime, as well as the occasional lazy afternoon).  It seems that public opinion makes provisions for the non-verbal child who breastfeeds, but one who can indicate his desire to nurse is a blink away from a pervert.  Turning gay.  Future child molester.  Porn star.  Right?

At the time, all I could do was laugh at my friends/colleagues.  I wasn’t educated enough to give them any hard science, but I knew one thing: at 3 months old – heck, at 3 DAYS old, Anna let me know, in no uncertain terms, when she wanted to breastfeed.  She “asked for it” by smashing her bobbly little head into my chest.  She made a little noise, like “Uh? Uh? Uh? Uh-uh-uh-uh-uh!”  There was no question what she was asking for.  Naturally, at 3 years old, Anna could tell me a lot more about her breastfeeding experience.  She could articulate what mamma-milk tasted like, (“macaroni” … my younger daughter says “strawberry jam”), which side she wanted, how long she wanted the nursing session to last, and why she still liked nursing (“because I love your smell, Mamma”).

In the 8 years since that early “public” breastfeeding experience, I’ve of course learned a whole lot about breastfeeding, the composition of human milk, the needs of human children, and I’ve experienced “child-led” weaning of my two older children.  (I will qualify: since I was tandem nursing at the time each of them weaned, I was definitely ready to see them move on from breastfeeding when they decided it was time, but I didn’t take significant measures to encourage their weaning … each weaned at around 45 months of age.)  The most significant reading I’ve done on the topic of breastfeeding “after they can ask for it” is by Katherine Dettwyler, Ph.D.  Her outstanding, enlightened research is summarized here.

(Read the link.  Seriously.  It’s not that long and it offers a perspective you probably haven’t considered before.)

When I contemplate Dettwyler’s projections for “normal weaning age” vs. the cultural expectations we have about babies and weaning, I’m fascinated by the other aspects of a baby’s development we, as a society, feel compelled to hurry along.  We want babies to wean; we want them to sleep all night, away from us; we want them to sit still and quietly and we want them to eat with a fork.  Why the rush for independence?

I do remember those years of feeling like a zombie.  My first two children are less than 2 years apart (we did this on purpose, but note we did that only once – baby #3 came 10 weeks after #2’s 3rd birthday) and the first was still an avidly breastfeeding toddler when her baby brother arrived.  In fact, she swore off all solid food when my milk came back – she gained 5 pounds in his first 2 months on my milk and a few bites here and there of the solids she had previously enjoyed (and eventually ate again).  It was around the time of my son’s birth that I believe I developed gluten intolerance, so the sheer exhaustion/lack of sleep was complicated further by painful rashes that covered most of my body and a thick fog that settled over every emotional and mental process I tried to have.  Both of them had reverse-cycled, sleeping their long stretch during the day when I was at work and waking to breastfeed frequently all night, every night.  But, my babies needed me, so I went with it.  I wasn’t trying to prove anything (no one was there to judge, anyway, except my husband, who was occupied with trying to balance his own parenting and career); I just felt, instinctually, that I was doing what needed to be done – nothing heroic, nothing special or above-average, just what my babies needed.  Now, they all sleep (though they do prefer to sleep together).  And they eat with forks!  It was all very no-frills and uncomplicated.  I fielded a lot of questions, and I confess I sometimes lied when I just didn’t feel like defending my family’s ever-adapting, “unorthodox” sleep situation anymore.  We traveled a lot (for work, mostly), and my children were always “at home” beside me, wherever we found ourselves.  I slept whenever I could, which meant that, in those years, I didn’t do much more than I really had to.  We made it work in spite of the cultural suggestions that what we were doing was abnormal, because it felt right to us.

The weaning, though, didn’t surprise me either time.  I had introduced the idea to each child when they started pre-school around their 3rd birthdays, more to let them know that most of their peers probably weren’t still nursing and that it was OK that we still did.  We talked about how someday, they wouldn’t want mamma-milk anymore, and how we would still snuggle and be close and loving as much as we wanted.  Around each child’s 3rd birthday, I could notice a distinct change in their latch – it had become very shallow and lazy, and not a whole lot of milk got transferred in a nursing session.  The fact that this became, at times, physically uncomfortable for me was a real clue that biologically, the need to breastfeed had waned a bit for my child, and the stark comparison between breastfeeding the younger sibling and the older one was evident every day – I had absolutely no physical aversion to nursing the younger child as much as he/she needed.

This morning, as always, my 3-year old daughter climbed into my bed after she woke up, and asked “Mamma, can you nurse me, please?”  Hearing her darling request each morning is still music to my ears, but the physical sensation of breastfeeding her isn’t as sweet.  “Drink it,” I remind her, or “scootch a little bit, Ella,” I tell her as I try to position her to a less abrasive place.  Sometimes, I say “you’re hurting mommy, honey,” and she adjusts for a few minutes, like she knows what she needs to do.  I know, though, that her weaning is imminent, perhaps sometime in the next few months.  After she nurses, she announces “done!” and asks if I’ll love on her for a few minutes.  We snuggle and talk about what’s ahead for the day, then we get up and her daddy gives her breakfast while I get myself ready.  Today, though, she surprised me by coming into the bathroom during my shower.  She opened the shower door, and just looked at me for a few seconds.

“Hi, Mamma!” she smiled.

“Hi, baby!  What are you doing?”

“I’m wearing tights!”  She’s always very excited when she wears tights.

“Yes, honey!  You look very pretty.”

I continued with my shower while she kept looking at me.  She spoke again, in her delicious little girl voice.

“Mamma, thank you for letting me nurse.  Bye!”

She left to go find her big brother, and I said a little prayer of thanks.  Not only is my child “old enough to ask for it,” she’s old enough to say thank you.

Be sure to read these other fantastic posts on the topic of extended breastfeeding:

Mamapoeki from Authentic Parenting: Extended Breastfeeding?

Mama Alvina of Ahava & Amara Life Foundation: Breastfeeding Journey Continues

Karianna @ Caffeinated Catholic Mama: A Song for Mama’s Milk

Judy @ Mommy News Blog:My Favorite Moments

Tamara Reese @ Kveller: Extended Breastfeeding

Jenny @ Chronicles of a Nursing Mom: The Highs and Lows of Nursing a Toddler

Christina @ MFOM: Natural-Term Breastfeeding

Rebekah @ Momma’s Angel: My Sleep Breakthrough

Suzi @ Attachedattheboob: Why I love nursing a toddler

Claire @ The Adventures of Lactating Girl: My Hopes for Tandem Nursing

Elisa @ blissfulE: counter cultural: extended breastfeeding

Momma Jorje: Extended Breastfeeding, So Far!

Stephanie Precourt from Adventures in Babywearing: “Continued Breastfeeding”: straight from the mouths of babes

The Accidental Natural Mama: Nurse on, Mama

Sarah @ Reproductive Rites: Gratitude for extended breastfeeding

Nikki @ On Becoming Mommy: The Little Things

Dr. Sarah @ Good Enough Mum: Breastfeeding for longer than a year: myths, facts and what the research really shows

Amy @ WIC City: (Extended) Breastfeeding as Mothering

The Artsy Mama: Why Nurse a Toddler?

Christina @ The Milk Mama: The best thing about breastfeeding

TopHot @ the bee in your bonnet: From the Mouths of Babes

Beth @ Bethstedman.com: Extended Breastfeeding: To Wean Or Not To Wean

Callista @ Callista’s Ramblings:  Pressure To Stop Breastfeeding

Amanda @ Postilius: Nursing My Toddler Keeps My Baby Close

Sheryl @ Little Snowflakes: Tandem Nursing- The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

Zoie @ Touchstone Z: Breastfeeding Flavors

Lauren @ Hobo Mama: Same old, same old: Extended breastfeeding

Tanya @ Motherwear Breastfeeding Blog: Six misconceptions about extended breastfeeding

Jona (Breastfeedingtwins.org): Breastfeeding older twins

Motherlove Herbal Company: Five reasons to love nursing a toddler

53 thoughts on “Old enough to ask for it

  1. I have always said that moms who don’t get to nurse a toddler miss out on the best part of breastfeeding. A kid that can talk to you about how much he loves nursing? The most amazing thing ever.

  2. I must admit I’ve thought the same thing. I didn’t understand why anyone would nurse that long. I still find it hard to imagine nursing a child that big (my girls are 3 and 5 right now so I try to imagine with them.) While THAT extended breastfeeding isn’t for me, I would never tell anyone else not to do it. It’s each child and mommy’s choice how long to breastfeed for and I can understand loving hearing your child talk about nursing and even thank you for it. I love the answers about what it tastes like, it makes me wonder what my kids would say. Great post.

  3. I saw the title of this and immediately thought of this post:


    She basically says her older daughter is “old enough” to ask for healthy food: vegetables, fruits, anything non-processed. And has the audacity to do so! So does that mean she shouldn’t give it to her?? Because she’s smart enough to actually ASK? It’s written in extreme sarcasm. I love it!

  4. Thank you for this! I’m a new mother with a 10 month old and am already tired of people questioning me about how long I’ll breastfeed. People are genuinely concerned that he may not be eating solids as much as they like. And, people who don’t have children or who never breastfeed frequently feel the need to condition me to believe that it’ll be gross when he can request breastmilk or be able to open my shirt. Reading your story is very empowering.

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  10. Love it! It’s so sweet that your baby loves her mommy and nursing so much that she thanked you verbally for it! Haven’t nursed long enough to experience that as yet, looking forward to it. 🙂

  11. Pingback: Extended Breastfeeding: To Wean Or Not To Wean | bethstedman.com

  12. Loved this post! I think I need to do a post about being too old if they ask for it. I’ve been writing about myths a lot lately and I think that’s a great one to include.

    I hope that Peanut’s weaning experience is as seamless as your childrens’. It’s great that they were able to do it on their own time when they were obviously ready.

  13. Pingback: The best thing about breastfeeding – The Milk Mama

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  16. I love this! I was putting Avery in his bed after nursing, and he looked up at me and said “Thank you for mama milk!” What an amazing thing!

  17. Pingback: Five reasons to love nursing a toddler | Motherlove Herbal Company Breastfeeding Blog and Podcasts

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  20. This is fantastic! I love how you interplay all of the aspects of the nursing relationship, even how toddlers/ preschoolers tend to get lazy with their latch. The best part about that, however, is that it’s easy to correct the latch of an older child! Thanks for sharing!

  21. This is a great post! It gives me a lot to look forward to. My son is just starting to verbalize his requests for nursing and I was taken aback the first time I heard it and understood that’s what he was asking for. And delighted. It’s nice he still enjoys it and to hear him ask for it just felt great. I can’t wait for “thank you.” I also really enjoyed the link you included in this post. I just attended a seminar today that discussed how all mammals breastfeed their young (except most humans of course) and so it went hand-in-hand with the above. Thanks for sharing!

  22. My first turns one next week, and all the questions about weaning are coming up around me. It’s so wonderful to read about how things look if I don’t. And, thanks so much for the Dettwyler link– intriguing.

  23. This is a great post for the breastfeeding carnival this month. Nursing toddlers and children is such a different experience than nursing a baby. I think many people don’t realize that. I agree that there is far too much of a push for independence, but at the same time it is met with keeping all control and decision-making out of the child’s hands. Breastfeeding allows for such a close communication and observance of one another. It is almost an enforced time to sit and be present-like a reset button for so many things. It allows time for both mama and child to pause and think about things. So, they’ll pop off and ask questions or say something that they know they are safe because they’ve just had that reassurance. Plus, it’s always nice to hear a thank you!

  24. Great post. I hope our future nursing relationship goes as well. DD is only five months old (so if anyone tried to suggest she should wean they’d get a real earful) and thus non-verbal, but she’s definitely clearly asking regularly. In fact, right from her first couple of days she’s let us know what she wanted; she tried to latch on to my husband, and apparently got the right place even through three layers of clothing!

  25. I just discovered your blog! I LOVE it!
    My daughter – an ex-27-weeker – is now 27 months old and still nursing. I remember, when I was pregnant, thinking “Well, it’s just for a year… if we can manage it…” Then “Well, 2 years is ideal. We’ll try to make it that far.” Now, I have the opinion of “Eh, she weans when she weans.” I love her sweet snuggles and the way she says “Mmm, good!” in the middle of a nursing session. I think that nursing a toddler who can “ask for it” has been one of the most unexpected parts of motherhood that I absolutely love. I would never do it any other way. 🙂

    • Thanks so much for visiting — I’m glad you enjoy the blog. I’ve been doing so much writing elsewhere that this has taken a back burner, but hopefully I will get a chance to create some more posts here. Any topics you’re particularly interested in reading about? 🙂

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  27. I’m very late to this party but great, great post! My son is not quite two and has that lazy latch a lot of the time. He gets real serious about it sometimes, and always at night, but during the day he not half-latches but also does gymnastics, half-falling off of me at times and taking my nipple with. Ow!

    I am just getting to where my son seems big to people and a couple of people have made comments. I thought I was more prepared to defend myself but it’s making me more comfortable than I had expected, maybe because I myself (cringe!) used to think that extended breastfeeding was gross. FACEPALM

    I love the very last bit of this post the best. 🙂

  28. What a great post. My daughter just turned a year, and she bites me, so i have to stop nursing. Im so sad because she is my last child, i wanted to nurse way longer then a year.

  29. love this article! i nursed both my older gurls from 2004 to 2009 though being preggo. they weaned together when they were 5 and 3. i have remarried and i have a 18 month old and of course she nurses..;] im preggo again…and ;\ these babies will be close in age too. i’ll get though it too..again.

  30. Really supportive and informative. As a breastfeeding mom, I really liked that my children weaned themselves and were able to tell me they were ready; and after they weaned I especially missed the benefits of breastfeeding them when they were sick. Not breastfeeding made illnesses so much more stressful!!

    As a clinician: When I am seeing a sick breastfeeding toddler in my office, I feel relief that they are receiving mother’s medicine. There often is no need for any other medicine (conventional or alternative) and breastfeeding makes it so much easier to keep a sick child hydrated. And I love to see how a sick toddler is comforted at mother’s breast and find it to be a helpful calming tool during the exam. Ask any ER doc about how much easier it is to examine a sick baby/toddler calmed at mama’s breast!

  31. I just want to step out on a limb here and say (as a mother who nursed for six weeks and was happy to stop when I did) that the judgments from the “other side of the aisle” are just as critical and harsh. When I stopped breastfeeding both of my daughters (who are now 12 and 15 years old) at six weeks I was told “You didn’t try hard enough,”; “You didn’t really give it a chance.” I was told that I was “Missing out.” I was told that my children would be less bonded, less loving, less intelligent, and less compassionate. I was told that if I was a “good mother” I would care more. Those judgments are just as hurtful and thoughtless as the judgments you related in your post.

    The conclusion (or continuation) of this story: My daughters are both intelligent, kind, loving, compassionate, thoughtful, spiritual human beings (as are my two adoptive sons who never nursed a day in their lives). I adore all of my children beyond measure. And I admire the people they are and are becoming every day. And please don’t anyone tell me “imagine how much better off you all would be if they WERE breastfed.” I cannot imagine loving and caring for my four children more than infinitely.

    I feel like the lesson here is that we have to love and care for our children in the best way we know in our hearts. This is not about being a better or a worse parent. This is about being a good parent. A loving parent. A parent who carefully considers their choices in the very best interest of their children. And there are as many conclusions about that as there are parents and children.

    I believe, at the end of the day, this is truly about listening to one another’s voices and honoring one another’s choices.

  32. I really appreciate this round of the carnival. That comment confuses me to no end. We give our kids whatever else they ask for, as long as it’s safe and healthy – WHY NOT NURSING? I hate that our culture makes me feel “weird” for still nursing my (underweight and in need of the calories!!) 16-month-old.

  33. Nice article. Last night, I was reading a bunch of “if they’re old enough to ask for it…” comments on a People magazine article about a celebrity nursing her toddler, when my own toddler came up to me and asked me to change her diaper. I laughed – who would tell her she can’t have a diaper change once she’s old enough to ask for it? Especially once they got a whiff of that diaper. The logic is absurd. My daughter also gets hugs when she asks for them, and apple slices, and anything else she needs or wants as long as it’s available and good for her. Later, she asked for “num nums” and she got that, too.

  34. OMGosh! That’s so sweet (“I love your smell, Momma. Thank you for letting me nurse!) Adorable! It’s also hilarious and a bit silly to me that your co-workers would ask such silly questions about breastfeeding… like it’s some strange new exercise and not the most natural and common of motherly activities. I just weaned my 20 month old (milk hasn’t dried up yet!) I just felt it was time, as often I felt uncomfortable and restless like I didn’t feel like sitting still while nursing. We were only doing it in the AM and PM so the transition wasn’t that hard. Middle of the night nursing was the last to go. But kudos to you for doing it as long as you feel comfortable!

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  38. I have breastfed my children past two years, my oldest nursing for four years. My current little one is 2-years and 1 month, he says “Boogie mick” when he wants to nurse, which means boobie milk 🙂 When they can ask is when you know they know what they want. It’s beautiful.

  39. Pingback: Why Nurse a Toddler? | The Artful Mama

  40. Pingback: Pressure to Stop Breastfeeding - Callista's Ramblings

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