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