I never thought I would write a blog post on extended breastfeeding, probably because I never thought I would nurse that long.
Extended breastfeeding is a pretty hot topic right now, thanks to the controversial Time magazine cover and a new reality show that’s coming out.
The attachment parenting folks have made it a little more common practice, but it’s still viewed as weird and strange. But even if you don’t adhere to the AP style, or if you’re like me, and you’re somewhere in the middle of the different parenting philosophies, if you’ve ever nursed a baby, you’ve probably heard the comments people make:
“When the baby gets teeth, it’s time to wean.”
“If they can ask for it, they don’t need to be breastfeeding.”
And my personal favorite, “If the kid can chew steak, it’s time to cut him off.” I really love that one because my all-boy meat eating baby was chomping at steak at 10 months of age, using only two teeth and his gums.
It seems that everyone wants to tell us when we need to be done breastfeeding, and it’s really funny when it’s coming from someone who has never given birth, much less nursed a baby. But I understand; I knew more about parenthood before I had kids too. After my first was born, I still thought I knew a lot. Now I’m aware that I know nothing, and half the time I feel like I’m flying by the seat of my pants.
In the United States, 75% of women start out nursing. Only 44% are still nursing at 6 months, and most of them have already introduced solids. When my babies reach 6 months of age, I’m in the minority of only 15% of moms whose babies are exclusively breastfed, since the 4-6 month age range remains a popular time to introduce solids, despite the AAP’s latest recommendations. Those numbers are even smaller for my area, where nursing is a little less popular than other parts of the country. (Click here to see the CDC’s Breastfeeding Report Card.) I know that when it comes to extended nursing, I must really be in the minority. But I never planned to be an extended nurser, and perhaps you don’t either.
My Journey with Extended Nursing
When I became pregnant with my first child, early in 2008, I knew I would nurse her and all other children because my mom had nursed me, and we considered breastfeeding “normal” at our house. I wasn’t really sure how long you were supposed to nurse your baby, but once I found out that you should nurse 12 months (weaning sooner involves formula), then I decided I would nurse my babies 12 months. Easy decision for a by-the-book rule follower like myself.
My baby girl was born and we had to fight hard to make nursing work, but we did it. I remember meeting up with my book club when my baby was several months old, and one of the ladies asked me about breastfeeding. Somehow we started talking about extended nursing, and I distinctly remember saying that it was weird, gross, and pointless. This is only one of many times that I’ve eaten my words as a mom.
Somewhere around 6 months, I would get asked questions like “Are you still nursing the baby?!?” If I was feeling defensive, then I would say something about the AAP guidelines of nursing until 12 months. Other women would ask the same question with a different tone: “So you’re still nursing?” After I said yes, then they would move in a little closer and sometimes make a confession like this one: “I think that’s great. In fact…I nursed my youngest until she was 2 1/2.”
After hearing several “confessions” like this one, I started asking these moms why they nursed longer. I also noticed that the kids they nursed longer were just as “normal” as the other kids (whatever “normal” means!). And some of these kids who breastfed a while were now in college or out of college, and there was nothing strange about them.
Meanwhile, my little nursing baby was getting bigger. Except she wasn’t. She was still my tiny little girl, even if she was getting older and a little bigger every month. December rolled around and her first birthday approached. She only nursed twice a day, first thing in the morning and at bedtime. I decided I wouldn’t go with my original idea of weaning, which went something like “Happy Birthday, kid, here’s your sippy cup of milk. No more nursing for you, baby girl.”
The more I thought about it, the less weird it seemed to continue nursing my baby. What was the difference between Isabelle at 12 months and Isabelle at 12 months and one day of age? Or 13 months? What was the difference in my milk? Did it suddenly stop being good, just because she turned 1?
In fact, the thing that seemed strange me to was to suddenly cut her off from nursing because it was December 21st, her first birthday. And as it turned out, she didn’t want a sippy cup of milk when she turned 1 anyway. It took her a while to get used to the taste, and we also had to experiment with the style of cup we put her milk in. During that transition time, I was so glad I was still nursing!
In the end, I decided to keep nursing until whenever. I know that sounds strange, but I really had no plan. I had several thoughts on the matter that convinced me to nurse longer than 12 months.
- Breastmilk doesn’t suddenly stop being good for your baby just because he’s had his first birthday. Can your baby get all of his nutritional needs met through food? Absolutely. But it doesn’t hurt to get extra vitamins and antibodies through breastmilk either.
- My baby was still a baby. Really, she was so tiny, and I just couldn’t imagine not nursing her anymore. I know that’s a sissy response, but it’s the truth.
- Everyone was happy. She still wanted to nurse, I was fine with it, and so was my husband. If one of those three people isn’t happy with the arrangement, then it’s time to re-evaluate. But as long as those three are happy, then I think it’s fine to keep nursing. No one else’s opinions matter. In fact, no one else needs to know. Unless you’re silly like me and you write a public blog about it. Doh!
- I noticed that all the moms I knew who had nursed past a year were very confident in their decision to do so. Some (not all) of the other moms who weaned at 1 or even sooner seemed to have a tiny bit of guilt about it. Those who had breastfed longer seemed to feel that they nursed until they or their baby was ready to stop, and that it worked out really well for them. I wanted to have that kind of confidence too, and be comfortable making the decision myself, instead of letting other people or a calendar date tell me when to wean my baby.
So when did we wean?
In the end, that’s just what I did. At some point during her toddlerhood, shortly after she’d started walking, I really wanted another baby, but we weren’t pregnant yet. So I decided to stop nursing her, just in case nursing her twice a day was preventing us from becoming pregnant. She was nearly 18 months old, and I wondered if we’d have more babies for me to nurse. But I weaned her anyway, not knowing that I was already pregnant. We found out a week later that I was pregnant with her baby brother.
And with baby brother? I planned to nurse him at least a year, and that once again, I would stop whenever I felt like it. But when he was 10 months old, I found out I was one month along with another baby. Eating for 3 was rough, especially with morning sickness! I don’t think I started gaining weight until after I weaned him completely, and even then it’s been a challenge to gain anything. My goal was still to nurse him until his first birthday, when I would be around 13 weeks pregnant. It was incredibly difficult to make it that long, and I had to take it one week at a time. I asked my OB/Gyn about it, and he advised looking at what La Leche League says about it, though he said that in his opinion, it was fine for me to keep nursing, but that he’d prefer I wean somewhere around 20 weeks, because of viability of the baby.
Somehow, we made it to his first birthday, but the child wouldn’t take milk. We had some troubleshooting to do with a milk allergy and more sippy cup experiments, but as soon as he would drink his coconut milk, I began working on weaning him. I nursed him until he was 13 months old, and while that’s not very long compared to most extended nursing moms, it was as long as I could do it.
In both cases, I felt like both babies were pretty much “done” when I stopped nursing. They weren’t too interested anymore, and the last few days of nursing, I had to repeatedly try to get the baby to eat. I don’t know if pregnancy hormones were a factor in that, but I felt comfortable knowing that my children didn’t feel upset or deprived because I’d stopped nursing. I was a little weepy and wistful about it, but I still felt comfortable in my decision to stop.
With baby #3, due in just a few weeks, I’m sure I’ll nurse him until “whenever” as well. I doubt I’ll ever be the woman at the restaurant whose 3 year old walks up and starts lifting her shirt to nurse, but who knows?
I do know this: I’m not going to make a judgment or decide she’s a bad mom because she still nurses her child. That’s a decision for her, her husband, and their child. Not me.
And I try not to say “I’ll never do ____ as a parent,” because those rules are often the first to get broken.