This is a guest post from a good friend of mine. I’m respecting her desire for anonymity, but you can find her introduction here. Enjoy!
What I want you to know:
-I’m the mom of four children and I’ve been breastfeeding nearly nonstop for eight years now.
-I’m an advocate for breastfeeding, but I don’t think it should be a topic that divides one mom from another.
-I think more women could successfully breastfeed if they were given an environment of encouragement and support instead of feeling guilty or condemned when things don’t go as they’d hoped.
-I nursed my first child till he was nearly four.
-I’m aware that the last bullet point made some of you choke on your coffee.
-In spite of that, I’d like you to give me a chance and to believe that I am actually a regular person and to try to hear my experience with an open mind.
-I like strong tea, a good book, a political argument, a moment alone, and always chocolate. (See, we’re not that different you and I. Chocolate brings everyone together.)
Briefly describe what your initial breastfeeding experiences were like with your child. Breastfeeding my first baby was darn hard. I imagined quiet, serene moments of mothering bliss. Ha! What I got instead was a poor latcher, sore nipples, sleepless nights, fits of crying (baby cried, too), and serious disillusionment. I had determined before he was born that I was going to nurse him come “hell or high water”, but it was definitely more difficult than I had anticipated. Thankfully, I had some excellent support and the determination to keep trying one more day. We finally figured each other out and began to be able to nurse well as a team after several long weeks.
What was your opinion of extended breastfeeding when your son was a baby? Was it something you’d considered for yourself?
Frankly, I was a bit shocked at the idea of nursing a toddler, and quite put off at the idea of nursing a preschooler. How disgusting and wrong! I certainly understand that reaction since I had it myself! It was something we sort of grew into. I had absolutely no idea I would nurse a child so long. He’s the child I’ve nursed longest, because he truly needed it. I would have probably tried to nurse my others till about two or so, but I found nursing through pregnancy challenging (to say the least) and the others have been weaned about 18-20 months because of that.
When did you know you’d be breastfeeding your child past his first year?
I found a book called “Mothering Your Nursing Toddler” and read it slack jawed. Once I got over the initial shock of the idea, I found myself asking, “Why not?” The more I considered it and studied the concept, the more I realized I only found the idea shocking because I wasn’t familiar with it. I’m not generally one to follow societal norms just because, and once I started asking why I should wean at a certain time or age, I found the reasoning unsatisfactory. I think it was some time in that first year that I allowed myself the freedom to just see where our path led us and not tie myself to a certain age for weaning.
Where did you go for support or resources about extended breastfeeding?
I read the book mentioned above, and I also found quite a bit of support from online friends. You may not realize it, but there are actually several women around you who have nursed a child quite a bit past that first year. It’s just not something we bring up over coffee. You’ll notice that this post is anonymous, and there’s good reason for that. I recognize the irony, since I’m doing this so a bit of light can be shed on the topic. The fact still remains people don’t understand it and are quite critical of it. There are very, very few people who know me in “real life” who are aware that I’ve nursed my babies and one older child so long. I definitely have family members who would be horrified. Why horrify them and subject myself to their judgment? I prefer to be a quiet revolutionary. Another book that was helpful to me as I nursed in pregnancy and for my one season of experiencing nursing a toddler AND a baby was “Adventures in Tandem Nursing”.
What was the biggest positive of extended breastfeeding?
The biggest positive for my oldest son was that I knew his needs were met. It gave him the security and reassurance he really needed. With the others, it was just sort of a given. We just…carried on. No big deal.
What was the biggest challenge?
The biggest challenge with my oldest son was that I grew to dislike it. By the time he was two, I was nursing him AND his infant brother. I was exhausted and touched out. I was nursing about a dozen times a day. I felt like all I ever did was nurse! It was uncomfortable. I remember watching a mama cat push her kittens away after they had grown a bit and silently sympathizing with her. How’s that for honest?
What advice do you have for the mom who is considering nursing her child into the toddler years?
Go for it! There isn’t really any reason you must stop when your child reaches a year old. It can be good for you and good for baby. Make sure you’re doing it for a good reason, and that you’re fully convinced in your own mind. If you’re going to make it public knowledge, be prepared for some resistance. Give others grace, and don’t expect everyone (or even most people) to be comfortable or positive about the idea. But, BUT, even if you experience criticism, realize it really isn’t weird or wrong, and it’s OK to continue on just as you are until you or your child is ready to be done. And if your child is the one who is done before you are? It’s OK to let go.
What is the biggest misconception about extended breastfeeding?
Am I limited to only one misconception? There are several. First, that it’s weird or wrong. It certainly isn’t wrong—cultures all over the world see it as normal. It’s just very different from what we’re typically used to. Second, that there is no benefit to it. Actually, the nutritional composition of breastmilk doesn’t become useless. It’s still an excellent source of protein, calcium, vitamin A, folate, vitamin B12, vitamin C, and more. Furthermore, the emotional benefit is worth considering. It is not at all unusual for us to see an older toddler with a bottle or pacifier. Really, those are replacements for the original. We understand that a little one derives emotional comfort from sucking a paci or his or her thumb. It’s the same idea with nursing. Third, the idea that “if a child is old enough to ask for it, he’s too old for it”. I think this might be tied to the notion that if they’re old enough to ask for it, they are old enough to remember it. It might make you uncomfortable, but truly, I don’t believe children are damaged by this memory even if it does stay with them. My son has, indeed, said he remembers nursing, but his memory seems mostly tied to the happiness, comfort, and security of it than anything else. Finally, the idea that breastfeeding a child this long is selfish on the part of the mother and simply for her own benefit. Nursing is a relationship of two people. The needs of both should be considered, certainly. I can attest, however, that my experience was not one I particularly enjoyed. I found myself continuing to nurse so long, because my child was rather high needs. I knew he needed it, that it would be exceedingly difficult for him to be weaned, and so we carried on. The truth is I was done long before he was. It grew uncomfortable and awkward. I felt “touched out” and cranky. I’m glad I gave him the experience because I know even now how much he needed it, but I was also quite glad when that season ended.
What have been the reactions from others when they found out you how long you breastfed?
Frankly, like I said earlier, not many people know. I’ve only chosen to share it with those I felt wouldn’t write me off forever. But, honestly, the reaction I expect from the “average Joe” is shock and dismay. I don’t like it, but there it is. And I’m not interested in being on the cover of Time magazine in an effort to try to change the world. I’d rather keep this particular decision private.
How did having more children change your breastfeeding relationship with your child?
I nursed my oldest and my second together. It was challenging, but worth it in that case. I think it helped him make space for his brother. I can remember one of the few times I nursed them at the same time out of desperation (two crying little ones). My older son reached across and held his tiny brother’s hand as they nursed. It was one of the most precious things I’ve ever experienced.
How have you decided when to wean your other children?
I weaned them earlier simply because I knew their needs were different. Nursing was a comfort to them, but it didn’t distress them to be weaned like I knew it would have my first son. I was pregnant each of the other times and it was simply growing uncomfortable for me.
What was your reaction to the recent Time Magazine cover controversy?
I wasn’t a fan. The image and headline were clearly meant for shock value and likely to sell magazines. I’d rather slowly change things by sharing my experiences quietly with close friends. People are more willing to accept new ideas when they come from people they know and understand. Our minds need to be open to accept a new idea, and that cover shut minds off immediately.
If you had it to do all over again, is there anything you would do differently?
I don’t think I would, actually.