There are people out there who say things like, “If they’re old enough to ask for it, they’re too old to breastfeed.” Or, “What are you going to do, go with him to kindergarten so he’ll have something to drink?” Or, “A woman who’d breastfeed a preschooler must be getting pleasure from it.” Or, the slightly less tacky but still intruding, “You’re not still breastfeeding, are you?” People who say these things are, in a word, idiots. Anthropologists tend to concur, based on comparative studies with other primates, that humans are naturally supposed to nurse anywhere from 15 months to 5 years old. Left to their own devices, a child will usually wean herself in that time frame.
I started writing this post around the idea of weaning, but from me that would be odd, because I have never really actively weaned a baby. Or a toddler. Or a preschooler.
I’m not sure when and how I decided upon it, but rather early on with Lane I decided to mostly follow the practice of child-led weaning. Basically, letting breastfeeding happen as long as Lane wanted to, and I was still comfortable doing it. Lane as a baby was a breastfeeding hound; she wanted it a lot, and protested vehemently when it wasn’t provided. I knew that any sort of active weaning was going to cause more heartache and lost sleep than it was worth. So, I went with the flow, mostly.
Lane nursed feverishly and with wanton abandon through her first year. I was even pumping for her until she was 16 months old. (I was working full-time at this point – I’ll definitely talk about breastfeeding and working in another post.) By the time she was about 20 months I’d night-weaned her, which wasn’t too difficult because she only woke up once to nurse and after a few nights of Frank attending to her instead of me, and/or a few nights of explaining that she couldn’t nurse until the sun was back up, she was good. At about the same time or shortly thereafter, I instituted an at-home-only rule. She could only nurse if we were at home, not out in public. Soon after her second birthday she only nursed first thing when she woke up, and right before bed. She held onto those twice a day sessions for a long time: I think around the time Jake was born (she was 2.5 when he was born) she only asked to nurse in the morning maybe every other day, which gradually reduced in frequency even more. Not long before her 3rd birthday, I instituted a 10-second rule. When she nursed, I would count to 10. I started counting very slowly, stretching it out to nearly the length I knew she normally nursed (2-3 minutes), and slowly the counting got faster, until she was really nursing a true ten-count. Before she turned 3 the morning nurse was gone completely, and a couple of months after she turned 3 the bedtime session became less of a staple and more of an occasional occurrence. Even now, maybe once every other week she might ask to nurse. And she does, for a quick ten-count. She still mentions nursing as part of her bedtime routine (“first we’ll brush our teeth, then read three books, then nurse, then turn off the light”) but once we’re in the routine, she so rarely actually asks to nurse.
Now through all this, I pretty much followed a “Don’t offer, don’t refuse” method – let her nurse whenever she wants, don’t say no when she asks. Well, she asked a LOT. So there were times I’d say no, and then I started saying no (or at least saying “not now” once the at-home-only rule was in effect). And there were also times I offered… like soon after Jake was born and I’d be all engorged because he was in the middle of a three hour nap and my boobs hurt, or back in the day when he’d sleep through the night (yeah… he used to… and doesn’t now… oh that fact drives me insane) and I’d wake up in the morning, my boobs throbbing, and Lane would be more than willing to skim off the top for me and ease the pressure. It was awesome that she was still nursing then, let me tell you!
Jake is pretty laid back about nursing during the day – when he gets hungry he’s just as easily satisfied with some food as he is with my milk. Nighttime is a different matter, boy is he hooked on nursing. I’m working through ways right now to try to minimize his night nursing because at this point it really is a habit and not a nutritional need, and I think it’s interfering with his ability to sleep more than 2-3 hours at a stretch. So, yeah, working on ways to gently reduce his night nursing, with limited success.
So no, your baby will not nurse forever.
And if you do opt to maintain an extended breastfeeding relationship, it doesn’t mean that you’ll be nursing your 3 year-old with the same frequency you nurse your 3 month-old. People share weird stories about kindergartners lifting their mother’s shirts to nurse in front of other people… extended breastfeeding simply isn’t like that with most people. Just because you nurse past your child’s first birthday doesn’t mean you can’t make rules and set boundaries. Allowing the breastfeeding relationship to continue is not the same as being completely permissive about how the relationship continues. As you probably ascertained from my above timeline, by the time Lane was about 18 months old, nursing for us was largely a private matter. If she asked in public I said no, but that when we were home, she could. Even being the single-minded, intense, willful child she can be, she handled the postponement well; as long as she knew it would happen soon, eventually, she was OK. Remember, your body is still your body, and nobody can or should make you feel forced or manipulated or indebted to do anything with it with which you’re not comfortable.
And, certainly, my way is not the “right” way. It’s not the only way. It’s not the best way. It’s just a way, and it worked for me and my family. It was what was easiest. I have a husband who is crazy supportive of breastfeeding, a family (both mine and his) that isn’t overly meddlesome or outwardly judgmental of extended breastfeeding, and I’m not the sort of person to cave to that sort of pressure anyway. Any breastfeeding is better than no breastfeeding, and while I’ve found it to be one of the most awesome and rewarding things I’ve ever done, and I’ve cherished the breastfeeding relationship I have with my children more than any connection I’ve ever had with another human, breastfeeding is also the most draining, challenging, and selfless things I’ve ever done as well; it is a lot of work and it takes a great amount of willpower to stick with it even when things are going smoothly. Throw in issues like recurring mastitis, a baby who won’t stop biting you, pregnancy and the ensuing breast pain, tandem nursing, etc., and it’s just that much more challenging. So please don’t take this post as an unconditional endorsement of breastfeeding past a year and anything less is subpar. I don’t feel like that’s true at all. If you make it six days, or six months, or six years, you’ve done a great job.