Monday, April 14, 2014

Yes, I'm "Still" Breastfeeding My Toddler

My third son, G, is now 31 months (that's 2 years and 7 months for those less month-county than I am). I had originally thought I would nurse him until he was two, as I had his older brother. However, during my fourth pregnancy, my milk dried up for the most part, several months before G turned two. I allowed him to continue to comfort-nurse and drink any colostrum he could extract, but I knew he wasn't getting all the benefits of breastmilk I had hoped to keep providing.

After Baby Y was born, when G was around 25 months, my breasts sprang back to life, overflowing with milk once again. I hadn't planned to "tandem nurse" - breastfeed more than one child at a time - but it sort of just happened that way. I hadn't stopped G from comfort nursing, and when he was actually getting milk again, he loved nursing even more.

In the early days, when Y was very little and needed to nurse often, I tried a few times to nurse the baby and G simultaneously. It was awkward and uncomfortable for me, but it was also the easiest way to please both of them.

Now, though, five months on, I don't try to nurse them simultaneously anymore. I leave the baby somewhere safe and happy, and I take G to his bed or mine. I find I don't mind nursing G by himself once in a while. It's a wholly different experience from nursing the baby. G only nurses once a day, at naptime, and not even every day. It's so easy to get him to lie down in bed and try to take a nap if I offer to let him nurse! It's incredibly cute how excited he gets when I agree to nurse him. He races down the hallway exclaiming, "I gonna nurse! You gonna nurse me! I gonna nurse! I gonna nurse in my bed!"

I've asked him what the milk tastes like, but all I get in response is "milk." Which is hard to argue with.

For those who are concerned about having enough milk for a toddler and a baby, you can absolutely nurse two children. Remember that your body makes milk based on the demand, so if you have a toddler and a newborn both demanding milk, your breasts will produce enough milk for both. See my series on nursing through pregnancy for more information about tandem-nursing a toddler and a newborn. My milk supply this time around is copious, partly because of my daily pumping in the first few weeks postpartum and partly because I nurse my toddler several times a week in addition to the baby's exclusive breastfeeding.

I never set out to be nursing a 2-1/2-year-old. I didn't have a specific plan for how or when to wean him completely. When his baby brother was born relatively close to his second birthday, I didn't think it was fair to G for Y to usurp his place at the breast at the same time he usurped his place as "the baby." We had long since night-weaned, so I didn't have the stress of trying to nurse two kids through the night. That might have affected how I felt about continuing to nurse him. Now, I would rather just nurse him once every couple of days than to deal with the tantrum and tears when I refuse. I'm sure if I refused enough times in a row, he would stop asking, but I don't see a reason to put us both through that stress right now.

I think when we talk about nursing an older toddler, one who speaks in complete sentences and has a mouthful of teeth and eats plenty of healthy foods and drinks water and juice and other milks, it's hard for people who haven't been there to understand that we're not just walking down the street, picking up a random toddler, and nursing him. We don't start out nursing a toddler. In fact, many women don't plan to nurse a toddler. Some mothers can barely look beyond the next day or the next week when they begin nursing their newborns. The progression from newborn to infant to toddler is so gradual that it seems natural once we're doing it. There's no switch that flips at one year or two years or 27 months or 33 months or September 4th or July 17th when it is suddenly no longer appropriate, necessary, or reasonable to be nursing a child. Most children will gradually wean on their own between two and four years of age, too busy with life to stop to nurse. But those children who continue to ask for it obviously still have a deep-seated need for the closeness of Mom, the sweetness of milk, the comfort of suckling, their first memories of shelter from the big, bad, scary world.

I think there's also a perception that when we say we're "still" nursing our two-year-old, or 27-month-old, or 34-month-old, that we mean we are nursing him like we would an infant, that he's coming to us six or eight or 12 times a day to feed, but it's not so. Most older toddlers nurse maybe once or twice a day, perhaps to help them fall asleep, or to go back to sleep at a night-waking. They may nurse more when they're sick, and it is a wonderful gift to give your sick child, the warm, disease-fighting, easy-to-digest milk tailored to his needs. But it's not the same as a newborn nursing for his sole source of nutrition, or an infant who only supplements his milk diet with solid foods.

How old is too old to still be nursing? Some would say once a baby has teeth, he should stop breastfeeding. Some say when the baby can ask for it, she should be weaned. Some say once he can ask for it in a complete sentence, he's too old. I think there's no rule. A child is too old to nurse when his own mother decides she is no longer happy or comfortable nursing him. A child is too old to nurse when he decides he doesn't need it anymore.

There was a wonderful research article written by anthropologist Katherine Dettwyler almost 20 years ago in which she set out to determine when a human child would naturally wean absent social constructs and societal pressure. Using several different methods based on other primates' weaning ages, she concluded that humans would naturally wean between 2.5 and 7 years of age, probably closer to the 4-6-year range. This is when the first permanent teeth start to come in (six-year-old molars erupt and baby teeth start falling out). She also examined other factors such as weight, length of gestation, and immune system development. All methods agree on that range.

I did not expect to continue to nurse G this long, but now I understand how it happens. You just... don't wean. Allowing a child to decide when he is finished nursing is called "child-led weaning" and is the most gentle and biologically normal way to slowly back away from breastfeeding. I don't think it will be long before I'm back to nursing just one baby. Often, G pops off and says he's done without falling asleep and without prompting. Many times, he tells me that "it's the baby's turn now" and sends me on my way. Interspersed are the days when he peacefully drifts off to sleep, one hand holding his blanket-lovey, the other resting gently on my breast. On those days, I unlatch him carefully (mindful of that mouthful of teeth), with a finger between his molars. Sometimes, he wakes up and runs off. Other times, he smacks his lips and re-settles, then sleeps for an hour or two on his own.

Will I still be nursing him when he's three? I don't know. I don't think so. I don't have a plan for when he has to stop breastfeeding. I'm sure he doesn't either. But the day will come, probably sooner than later, when Y gets all the milk to himself, and then some day, a few years down the line, my milk will dry up for good and I'll be done nursing forever. I see no reason to rush toward that day, and neither do my babies.

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