To the people who ask…
“Why do you *still* breastfeed?”
“Why do you breastfeed a toddler?”
…I could tell you a few things.
I could tell you that the World Health Organization recommends breastfeeding for a minimum of two years and beyond as desired by the mother and child.
I could tell you that the biologically natural age of weaning for humans is between 2.5 – 7 years.
I could tell you that breast milk is just as nutritious (and actually packed with more antibodies) for young children as it is for young babies.
I could tell you that my child likes to have the option of nursing for comfort, just as much as he likes hugs, kisses, and self-soothing techniques.
I could tell you that breastfeeding is more than just food.
Many of these answers worked for a while. A good two years, really.
But now that I’m growing a second child in my womb and MaiTai is three years old, the questions have changed.
“Why do you *still* breastfeed during pregnancy?”
“Will you tandem nurse and why would you do that?”
This time the answer is simply… I don’t know.
I don’t know why I’m pregnant and breastfeeding a three year old. I don’t know if I’ll tandem nurse. I don’t know why I would do it either, because honestly, I haven’t given much thought to it. Breastfeeding has never been up to just me — my child has guided me every step of the way.
I didn’t grow up in a culture where the answer is obvious through common social demonstration; a society where an exposed breast means, before anything else, that a baby is about to eat. Or a time when such questions were never uttered; the time when the survival rate of babies was tragically lower — but not at the blame of breast milk, for if a mother required a break from nursing, her child was in good hands with another tribe mate of child-bearing age.
I wasn’t afforded those generations of experience, and must learn on my own and through strangers in anonymous, indirect formats about the normalcy of breastfeeding for all kids, not just mine. So I don’t know the answers to these questions. Thankfully, instincts serve us well in the absence of acquired knowledge.
My instincts tell me that MaiTai likes it so there’s no reason to stop. Just as I don’t tell him we need to stop going to the baby playground at age one even though he’s finally able to ‘ask for it’ and tell me how much he loves it, I don’t tell him we need to stop nursing for the same reason.
Despite my early, uneducated suspicions that child-led weaning was a myth made up by selfish, coddling mothers, I’ve observed that MaiTai’s self-weaning process is indeed a real thing. I once questioned my place in the chaotic shuffle of new motherhood to know “When will this end?!” Now I trust the natural operation; I don’t fear the ridiculous non-possibility of nursing him in line at the DMV while he gets his driver’s license, as some have insinuated I might need to do (“just you wait and see” goes the alpha mom advice so loaded with faux concern).
I know it’s hard to really understand breastfeeding if you’ve never done it. I spent 24 years not breastfeeding so I’m more than qualified with that perspective myself. Though I’ve nursed for three years now, occasionally I find myself looking down at my child, he latched on and daydreaming, and I’m struck with a thought that crawled out from some place I’d long forgotten: This is weird, isn’t it? Isn’t that what they say, that this is weird? Then why does it feel so normal?
We don’t treat breastfeeding as ‘a thing on the list,’ something that needs to be ‘done.’ It’s just another part of our lives, and for the entirety of MaiTai’s life thus far, it has always been. As routine and purposeful as reading a nightly bedtime story, having conversations with each other about how we’re feeling, or sharing a cooked meal. The nature of it as reciprocal loving energy is consistent and reliable, yet somehow always in a state of redesign, an experience in metamorphosis like everything else in child-raising.
In my first trimester with MaiTai’s current sibling womb-resident, he dropped his nursing frequency to once every few days or at most, once per day. In my second trimester I finally noticed a change in my breasts — swollen and full, preparing for upcoming heavy-duty lifting — and he just as suddenly began asking to nurse multiple times a day again.
And it HURTS. My nipples weren’t THIS sensitive during my first pregnancy! But wonderful hormones, they make it so my areolas feel like permanent bruises and his nursing feels like they’re being chewed right off, even though his latch is perfect and his teeth are out of the way. I actually worried the first few times that I might be suffering permanent damage. One time as we nursed in bed, I told him it hurt me and asked if we could stop and could we just have a little bit more in the morning instead?
At this, he quickly turned away from me, threw his face into his hands, and cried. I didn’t think he’d care that much to be honest. Surprised by how much this meant to him, I let him know we could keep nursing later but it hurt too much right now. More crying. Then I realized he wasn’t upset that I’d halted the nursing session, he was upset thinking he’d done something wrong — he was afraid that he’d hurt me.
“Oh, it’s not your fault, hon! I like nanoo too. But when there’s a baby inside me, sometimes nanoo hurts so I can’t nanoo too long, is all. When the baby is here with us, nanoo won’t hurt anymore.”
He said he understood, but still my heart was broken. His internalized responsibility over my complaint pained me more than these distressed areolas. So I decided not to tell him again that it hurt.
The next day he said he wanted nanoo in our parked car before we drove home from the park. Though I broke out into a sudden sweat just thinking of the torture that awaited my upper torso, I plastered on a smile and said, “Sounds good, MaiTai.”
He curled into my lap and latched on but he barely suckled. A few seconds later he popped off and said, “I’m done! Just a little bit!” Phew…ok! Booby battery officially dodged.
Later that evening he did the same thing; he latched on and popped off within 15 seconds. Then he said, “I didn’t hurt you this time, right mama?”
Apparently he aimed to considerably shorten his nursing sessions to avoid causing me further pain. My goodness… my heart could barely handle the sweetness and empathy in this gesture. He was only taking enough to fulfill his ‘need’ to know nanoo was available, that I was still there for him, and this wasn’t the end of nanoo. He was accepting the sacrifice of his ‘want’ to linger and indulge.
“No you didn’t hurt me, hon. I’ll let you know if it hurts, okay?”
“I didn’t hurt you…” he whispered to himself as he fell into a satisfied doze on my chest.
The next day he shyly told me again that he wanted nanoo, “just a little bit, and then we can sleep.” Rather than noticing the pain, I was focused entirely on understanding his feelings as he nursed for a meager 15 seconds again. I reminded him that he could nurse as long as he needed. He refused to continue, saying, “I just don’t want to hurt you. We can have a little more in the morning, like you said.”
Several weeks later the pain is gone, and you know what? I’m desperate for its return in place of what succeeded it. Two words: Nursing Aversion. (Read more about my history with NA here). Now he nurses for more like fifteen minutes each time and I secretly pinch myself with nails I wish were longer and sharper, just to help neutralize the creepy-crawliness of nursing under the charge of farther-along pregnancy hormones. How could I possibly explain such a thing to a three year old, when I barely understand it myself?
So what does he get out of breastfeeding now? Again… I don’t know. It’s like his little secret — that or he assumes I already know why. I’ve asked him before, actually: “What do you like so much about nanoo?”
“I love you,” he answered with half my breast still against his cheek. Another time he looked me right in the eye and smiled. An eye rolling, “Ohhh mommmm” smile. One that says, “Don’t be so silly, asking a question with such an obvious answer!”
So, is it the taste then?
Though he’s told me in the past that my milk tastes “SO yummy… like strawberries,” for the past few months he mentioned that one side tastes “yucky.” But he keeps asking for more! So taste is not why he nurses.
Is it the nutrition?
Though he began complementing his breast milk diet with solids and other liquids at a year old and in his second year adopted a habit of table food meals every day, he still receives healthy properties from breast milk to keep his gut flora balanced. But I no longer produce enough milk that could solely sustain his growing toddler frame. So nutrition is not why he nurses.
Is it the soothing?
Though sometimes he requests to nurse when he’s tired or sick, most of the time he asks for a kiss on his boo-boo, medicine, a band-aid, a hug or a back-rub. So soothing is not why he nurses.
Is it the health benefits to him and myself?
Other than having told me nursing is “good for boys and girls and babies,” he doesn’t seem to have much awareness of the fact that breastfeeding helps him avoid risk of allergies and illness, among other things, and significantly reduces my risk of breast cancer. So health security is not why he nurses.
Is it that he needs more physical closeness?
We bedshare for sleep time (usually with foreheads together and arms interlocked). We carry and kiss and cuddle. We tickle and give each other foot rubs. A big part of our bond is regular physical affection and neither the demand nor supply of it decreases if he’s not nursing as much. So physical closeness is not why he nurses.
No, I don’t really know why he nurses. But I have an idea — emotional connection. Maybe it’s just a way he shows he loves me, as I have always shown in this way that I love him, too.
Read more on this topic in my child-led weaning awareness series:
- Pt. 1: Weaning Before Age One
- Pt. 2: Common Weaning Concerns
- Pt. 3: Nursing Older Infants & Toddlers
- Pt. 4: What People Say
- 10 Differences Between Nursing an Infant & a Toddler
Read more about nursing during pregnancy:
- One in The Womb & One on The Boob: Breastfeeding During Pregnancy
- “Get Away From Me! I Love You.” (Alas, nursing aversion has found us)