On nursing toddlers.

At our table in high school photography class, my friend Sarah shocked us when she revealed that her sister, who was probably 2 or 3 at the time, was still breastfeeding. This child was old enough to walk over to their mother and say articulately, “I want to give nurse.” We were flabbergasted.

“She can ask for it?” we said incredulously. “Are you supposed to do that?” It was obvious to our tenth- or eleventh-grade selves that a kid who could talk at all, let alone speak in complete sentences, was way too old to be breastfeeding. How old was too old, exactly? We didn’t know. But we were pretty sure it had something to do with teeth coming in or sitting up or walking–something that showed that the baby was no longer a baby. Babies nurse. Sometimes, maybe. But only babies.

Well. This week, my son (who for the purposes of this blog will be called Ace) weaned, at the ripe old age of 2 years and 3 months. He is actually younger than his sister (now age 5, who I’ll call Poppy) was when she weaned at 2 years and 6 months. It occurred to me yesterday that this is the first time in something like six years that I am not either pregnant or nursing, or both. It’s the first time since I was pregnant with my current kindergartner that my body has belonged only to me!

I didn’t expect when I first got pregnant that I would end up breastfeeding a couple of toddlers. I had this vague notion in my mind that you breastfeed for a little while, and then you switch to bottles. I’m pretty sure that’s how my mom did it; I figured that’s just how it was done. Doesn’t everyone do things just the way you’ve always experienced them? Plus, I knew from those well-reasoned, highly intellectual conversations in high school that I was not going to be a parent of some kid who was still suckling my teat when he or she was old enough to talk to me about it.

But of course, pregnancy in the Internet era is almost impossible to get through without learning a bunch of stuff you never knew you never knew, especially for someone like me who has a habit of researching things to death. So I learned about breastfeeding and decided it was worth doing. Maybe for a year; maybe two.

And when I was actually breastfeeding my children, it became an actual thing, not just a topic of web articles or classroom chitchat. When I was actually breastfeeding my children, it seemed like the most natural thing in the world. (You know, after that initial adjustment period. I won’t pretend there wasn’t one, both times.)

Plus, it was easy (again, post-adjustment, and not counting things like having to pump at work and prepare breast milk bottles–those parts were a pain in the arse). I mean, the baby cries, you stick the boob in his mouth, and he stops crying. You have the baby on an airplane, the boob lulls her to sleep, and your fears of her screaming all the way to Atlanta dissolve. The baby wakes up in the middle of the night, you roll over and give him a boob, and nobody has to get out of bed.

Those easy parts don’t go away just because the baby learns to walk. Au contraire! Oh, did the baby just toddle into the door jamb and smack herself in the face? Boob to the rescue. Uh oh, the baby tried to climb up on the table and tumbled down to the floor instead; here’s a soothing boob. Oops, the baby went and got himself scratched when he attempted to pick up the cat by her skin and fur; never mind, wee one, the boob’ll make you feel better.

Shots, tantrums, bedtimes–it’s impossible to cry and nurse at the same time, and usually, a well-timed boob in the mouth plugs up some unwanted screaming straightaway.

I will say that breastfeeding wasn’t without its drawbacks. Teeth were tricky, especially with Poppy. Near the end of her nursing days, she developed this really lazy toddler latch, especially when she was dozing off. I was always finding sad-looking teeth impressions on my nips after our nursing sessions. Really unpleasant. Also, both of my kids associated going to bed for Mommy with nursing, so it made putting them down a somewhat more protracted ordeal for me than it was for my husband. With Poppy, I despaired that she would ever sleep anywhere but my bed–but of course, she’s slept beautifully on her own for a couple of years now.

In the end, the thing that felt unnatural to me was the thought of trying to stop breastfeeding. When would I have done that? Six weeks? Six months? There was never a time I thought, “Oh, he’s old enough. He doesn’t need this anymore.” Both of my kids loved nursing. When Poppy was a baby in day care, I often got to go visit her at lunch time, and she always nursed. It was a pleasant way to be close and cuddle for a little while in the middle of the day, when I could focus only on her in a setting where she necessarily had to compete for her caregivers’ attention. She had a long phase during that time where she’d be very out of sorts at the end of the day until I got her home and sat down to nurse her. It seemed to help her to relax and settle down, just snuggled up quietly against her mama. It would have broken her heart at that point if I’d said, “Sorry, dollface, I see your incisors coming in. You’re cut off.” It would have broken my heart, too, and not only because she would surely have wailed like the world was ending. Poppy wasn’t the only one who needed to sit down and decompress at the end of the day.

Ace is a boyish little boy who loves matchbox cars and knocking things down. But he also has the biggest, cutest grin, and he loves his mommy. The sweet way he refers to nursing as “side-side” (as in nursing on one side and then on the other side) puts the warmth right up in my heart every time. The way he would settle his little head into the crook of my elbow and curl up his legs to nurse was the best extended hug ever. When I wore short sleeves, his ear would leave an impression on my arm. As he got bigger, his legs stretched out across and then off of my lap. But as big as he is, as destructive to anything within his grabby little reach, when he got into my lap for some side-side, he was just a cuddly little baby.

In the end, neither one of my children actually weaned; I weaned them. I’m not sure how long they each would have gone on if I hadn’t started cutting back. And if it was so great, why did I cut back? Meh. It was different each time. With Poppy, that lazy latch really did get uncomfortable. Plus, she was still nursing when I was first pregnant with Ace, and I didn’t want to nurse two kids at the same time. I was afraid that if I let her keep going, even though she had naturally (and with a little guidance) reduced her breastfeeding, that once my newborn’s milk supply came in, she would regain enthusiasm. So I spent six months cutting out nursing sessions, slowly, until finally they were all gone. She protested, but she did fine. Better, I think, than she would have if I’d suddenly tried to cut her off cold turkey when she was still less than a year old.

With Ace, I didn’t feel as motivated to get the nursing over with as I did with Poppy. Still, before he turned 2, I stopped letting him nurse in public (because, okay, it did start to get embarrassing). More recently, I began diverting him a lot of the times he asked to nurse. We got to where he nursed only for a few minutes when I got home from work, and then again at bed time and through the night as needed (which varied).

And then last week, my husband and I went on a cruise. I figured this would be it; the old girls would finally dry up. I attempted to prepare Ace for this before the cruise, but he has never known a world without the boobies, so I don’t think he really knew what I was talking about.

It’s taken some adjusting. He hasn’t been thrilled, but he’s getting used to it. He’s doing better now than I think he would have done any time before now.

And so, at last, these boobs are as much mine again as they were back in high school. But I’m glad I nursed Ace and Poppy into their toddlerhoods. I wouldn’t trade it for all the unbitten nips and unshared beds in the world. It was worth it.

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2 Responses to On nursing toddlers.

  1. Jodie says:

    Loved it! I nursed both of mine for a year each and those moments are still some of my fondest memories 🙂 I didn’t really wean either of them, they just sort of tapered off. It just amazes me that this is such a touchy subject for people. It seems like every other day there is a story about some poor woman who is asked to leave somewhere because someone is offended by her breastfeeding! I get offended when I see people giving their kids soda in baby bottles but those mothers don’t get escorted out 🙂 Boobs are for breastfeeding, that is why we have them so why is it offensive to use them?

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