Almost 12 years ago, I was a single 20-year-old mother living with family friends and figuring out how to take care of a little baby. I was working full time. I was not breastfeeding. There are a lot of other things I could say about that time, but that's a different post. What I want to bring up about that time is that the wonderful, generous, loving family who was letting me live in their basement with my 3-month old baby for free had some parenting practices that I thought a little weird.
They had a Family Bed. The mom nursed her children until they were 3 years old. The youngest of their three children was about 3 years old when I lived with them and she was the most articulate and loquacious toddler I had ever met. To me there was something very disconcerting about hearing her talk in complex and complete sentences, using words like "invalid", "governess", and "disagreeable" (true!!) one minute, and then having "Milk and Cuddles" the next. It just seemed "wrong" to me, though I couldn't make an argument as to WHY it was wrong (can anyone say cultural programming?) and I remember confidently (and arrogantly) pronouncing, "If they're old enough to ask for it they're too old to nurse!" To my mind, nothing could be worse than growing up and being able to remember nursing. Eeeew!
Fast forward 6 years. Moses is born, and I have something of a "natural parenting" mindset, but it has yet to flesh out. We're using cloth diapers, I carry him in a sling, he sleeps in bed with us and I know I'll nurse him for a year. Then he turns one. He's no where near being ready to wean. In fact, he still seems like - he still is - a baby in most ways and I see no reason to put him through the misery that weaning would entail, any more than I would suddenly insist that he start using the toilet instead of going in his diapers. He's just not ready!
We decide to "play it by ear." At 20 months old his little brother is born. Instead of being pushed off Mama's lap, he gets to nurse with this new little sibling. They share Mama. Moses holds his brother's hand and rubs his head as they tandem nurse. The jealous older sibling rages I've been dreading never happen. They love each other! (Until Judah becomes a toddler, then we have a whole other ball of wax to deal with....)
Now Moses is two. He's still nursing for naps, bedtime, anytime he gets hurt, anytime he's scared, anytime he goes through something emotionally difficult, anytime he needs connection. He's not ready to wean and I see no reason to insist that he does, any more than I would insist that he put himself to bed at night.
Finally it's a couple months before Moses turns three. I've been tandem nursing for over a year. I'm pregnant again. I cannot handle the thought of tandem nursing through a whole pregnancy. Moses is still nursing at bedtime and naptime and various other times during the day, as is Judah. I decide IT'S TIME. HE'S READY! The kid is not going to wean himself, but he's emotionally ready to handle the change. He's ready to move on to forms of comfort and connection that do not involve nursing.
I introduce the concept of "nums are for night-night." This means we only nurse at bedtime. With only a little fuss, he accepts that boundary. So far so good. Several weeks go by during which I'm preparing him for the change. "Soon you will be done with nums! You're a big boy and we're going to give the nums to Judah and the new baby. Mama will still cuddle you and read you stories." Does he understand what's coming? I'm not sure, but one night I tell him he's all done with nums. He's sad. He cries. I cuddle him and read him a story. It's not as good as nums, but he does go to sleep. For about a week he is sad when I tell him no nums. A few times he gets hurt and I let him have some nums, but mostly I spend a lot of time cuddling and connecting with him. Then it's over! He's weaned! He stops being sad at night and stops asking for nums. Once or twice he asks and I tell him sure and he says, "I guess no." There were no tantrums, no acting out, no sobbing hysterically. He cried a little here and there, but he pretty much accepted it and moved on with no hard feelings.
All in all, Moses and I had a beautiful and satisfying nursing relationship. Besides giving him perfect nutrition and great immune defense (he's always been super healthy - much more so than Grace ever was!), nursing gave Moses a sense of comfort when life got scary, it calmed him down when his feelings got too intense, it lulled him to sleep, and it gave him the connection he always needed after he'd been out exploring the world. Nursing kept me physically available to Moses. I wonder how much less touch and physical connection we would have had in those 3 years if I hadn't nursed him. I see it now, how nursing Judah and Clementine forces me to touch and hold and connect with them - forces in a good way, in a I-can't-get-too-busy-and-just-forget-to-cuddle-my-kids way. And now that Moses isn't nursing, I do
So here I am, a mom who nurses her kids to 3 years old. Is it gross? No. Is it "wrong"? No. Was I uninformed and naive and arrogantly passing judgment on something based solely on unexamined cultural biases? Yep, pretty much. And although I'm not hugely outspoken about my extended breastfeeding, neither am I ashamed of it, at all. So just in case you think breastfeeding past a year is weird or gross, or maybe you don't want to wean your 1-year-old but don't know anyone who's nursed that long, I'm sharing my story and some really good resources. And you know what? I hope my kids do remember nursing, and how incredibly special it was. I'm proud to have given 3 of my children such a precious gift.
P.S. - Judah turns three in February and we're in the weaning process. He's handling it differently than Moses did (they are SUCH different kids...), but he also is accepting it without tantrums or despair or sobbing. He's ready too.
A great place to start: Kellymom Breastfeeding Past Infancy Fact Sheet
If you think it's gross, read this: Not Just for Babies: 10 Good Reasons to Breastfeed Your Toddler
References, links, common concerns and tips on parenting a nursing toddler: Kellymom Nursing After the First Year
The best book under the sun for anyone who nurses past a year:
Mothering Your Nursing Toddler. This book has saved my sanity and changed how I view mothering. I would love to loan it out, but it's really, really worth owning.
"My first-born, Emma, was 14 months old. I had enrolled in a course, and, with the feeling of my life opening up again, had begun to wean. It was at that time that I read a book called Mothering Your Nursing Toddler. Starting with the assumption that extended breastfeeding is satisfying for both mother and child, the author, Norma Jane Bumgarner writes of the security, confidence and self-esteem that we give our children when we allow them to nurse, and wean, according to their own schedule. She certainly convinced me, and Emma and I went on to nurse happily for three more years.
Re-reading the book six years later, her message seems less radical. My three keen nurslings have, to me, well proven the benefits of an extended breastfeeding relationship, with a physical resilience and emotional independence that comes, I believe, from the access to loving arms and the secure base that breastfeeding provides. Over the years I have also learned about the more tangible advantages of extended nursing..."
The Pleasure of Extended Breastfeeding by Sarah J. Buckley
A super cool video on extended breastfeeding. I big puffy heart love this video:
This is a goldmine, a serious goldmine: LLLI Nursing Past One Year Articles
For those who might feel isolated, you're not alone: Breastfeeding Until Age 3, 4 or 5: More common than you think?
Oh the things I've heard about breastfeeding past a year. It helps to know: Dr. Sears - Handling the Criticism
Other moms talk about nursing past a year: Health Happy Roundup: Extended Breastfeeding
Every one of these is worth reading start to finish: Mothering.com Breastfeeding Past Infancy Articles
One of the first articles I read about extended breastfeeding: Breastfeed a Toddler? Why on Earth?
Think there's no point in nursing past a year? You couldn't be more wrong: Extended Breastfeeding's Benefits
This one speaks for itself:Breastfeeding Beyond a Year: Exploring benefits, cultural influences, and more
This article broke my heart and renewed my confidence all at the same time. It's not a list of the research and benefits, but to my mind it's even more convincing: A Nursing Triad