I never planned to breastfeed my third kid until he was two-and-a-half years old.
Don’t believe me? It’s true. Nursing past two years old was never in my plans. Even as a former doula. Even as someone who gave birth in a tub in my living room. Even as someone who can probably cross off at least a third of the items on a “Crunchy Parenting” checklist. (Make my own granola? Check. Grow organic vegetables in my backyard? Check? Avoid all processed foods? Absolutely not: give me cheese fries and chicken wings, or give me death.)
With my first two children, I aimed to meet the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommendations for breastfeeding. I do well with clearly defined goals–“continuing breastfeeding for a year” was clear enough for me–and so I nursed them until they were 12 and 14 months old, respectively. With my third child, I was open to breastfeeding him for a little longer.
But just a little.
And yet the ongoing months of toddler-nursing just happened, kind of like how piles of school papers on my kitchen counter have “just happened” to grow into a three-inch stack, or like how my email inbox has “just happened” to balloon to a whopping 845 messages over the past few years.
Breastfeeding a kid who was old enough to speak in complete sentences is something that happened to me without much foresight or planning.
To many people, however, toddler-nursing doesn’t seem like something that just happens. Toddlers can do and say and accomplish things that make breastfeeding seem strange and unnecessary. Toddlers have teeth: a full mouth of them. Toddlers eat plenty of other foods (and non food-stuffs too, like shreds of paper and bits of crayon). For God’s sake, my two-and-a-half-year-old son can build a pumpkin out of Legos.
Though toddler nursing is quite common worldwide, it’s not all that common in the United States. In fact, most people in the U.S. find it to be kind of weird and off-putting. I once thought it was pretty weird–and yes, a bit gross–when I was a newly minted mother. Before I had children, I even uttered the words, “If a kid can ask for it, they’re too old to breastfeed.”
Like most people who make sweeping generalizations about topics with which they have little experience or expertise, I didn’t understand the complex, messy, lived reality of parenting and breastfeeding and caring for small children. And I met that complex messiness head-on with my third son, Eric.
When Eric was six months old, he slept for eight to ten hours straight every night. He took two hour naps every day. He was easy-going and affable and adorable and would sleep anywhere: our room, his portable crib, even my uncle’s living room floor.
But then at seven months old, Eric stopped sleeping through the night. He stopped sleeping through solid chunks of the night too. He woke up every hour or two, sometimes every half-hour. He would only nap nestled in my arms or bundled against my chest in a baby carrier. He stopped being easy-going and affable and started being clingy and impatient. And in those wakeful nighttime hours–interminable nights that went on for more than a year–breastfeeding was the only thing that calmed him.
With the help of his doctor, Tim and I ruled out illness, allergies, and other major health concerns. Now we’re nearly certain that teething caused his (and our) sleeping woes, but there’s really no way to tell for sure. All we do know is that our year-and-a-half of sleeplessness was hellish. Tim spent many hours in the living room with Eric, who screamed in Tim’s arms until they both fell asleep. I spent many hours curled into a neck-stiffening question mark, nursing Eric until we both fell asleep.
I didn’t keep breastfeeding my son because it was beautiful or magical, though some nursing moments were truly beautiful. I didn’t do it for the health benefits, though I’m sure there were some. I didn’t do it because of any particular principles or values or goals.
I kept breastfeeding because it was the only thing that worked.
In the thick of it, breastfeeding a toddler never seemed that strange or weird or off-putting to me. Eric needed to nurse to fall asleep. I needed him to fall asleep to feel human. And in many ways, with his cherubic cheeks and pudgy legs and gummy words, he was still a baby. Baby enough that nursing felt more right than wrong, more an act of care than an act of maternal-martyring.
I didn’t know much about weaning a toddler, but I knew that he’d have to wean eventually. “I mean, he will, right?” I’d ask Tim. “He won’t be breastfeeding when he goes to kindergarten, right? I mean, that’s not even a question. He won’t.”
I didn’t know how it would happen, though I hoped it would happen easily. I didn’t know when it would happen, though I was determined, so help me God, that it wouldn’t happen long after his third birthday.
And over the past few weeks, weaning has just kind of happened, much the way that breastfeeding for this long just happened. It happened so seamlessly that I wouldn’t be able to articulate a list of the steps I took to encourage breastfeeding cessation if I tried. Eric seemed ready. He was willing to trade “milkies” for snuggles. He was able to fall asleep without nursing at all. But mostly, I was ready. I wanted my body back. I wanted a less demanding bedtime routine. I wanted the heightened sense of agency one gets when a child is no longer draining–literally, draining–calories and energy from you.
About a week ago, as our breastfeeding sessions had tapered off to once every couple days or so, Eric asked to nurse before bed. I relented because it seemed easy. Since he was already cranky and whiny, it also seemed like it would be the thing that would “work” for bedtime. I grabbed a book and lay beside him, and for a moment I thought, “God, I hope he falls asleep soon so that I can get back to the computer and get some work done.”
A few sentences into my book, however, I stopped reading.
I can’t say for certain how to decipher between the moments that one should wish away and the moments that one should cherish. I don’t know the critera. Can’t articulate the necessary and sufficient conditions. But I will say this: in that moment, lying next to my toddler, breastfeeding him for the many-thousandth time, I savored the seconds. I gazed at his face and touched my fingers to his matted hair. I marveled that my body was feeding him, just as it had fed his brothers before him. I whispered a silent prayer to whatever luck of biology and circumstance it was that had made breastfeeding so easy for me with all three of my children.
I kissed my toddler-nursing son on the forehead, and I told him that I loved him. I cherished the moment with every ounce of my being.
It was the last time I ever breastfed one of my babies.
Eric, breastfeeding at two days old. Image credit erika ray photography