I never intended to nurse a 4-year-old. In fact, before my first son was born, I thought that breastfeeding beyond a year was unnecessary and probably a little bit kooky. Wouldn’t it be awkward to nurse a child who could ask for a snack to go with his milk?
But as I approached the 12-month mark, I realized that it seemed like an arbitrary number. I looked down at my sweet baby cooing at me with drips of warm milk on his chin and my mothering instincts told me that weaning him would be wrong. If my baby was still enjoying nursing and getting so many nutritional benefits, why should I stop now? As time passed, I became more comfortable with the idea of extended breastfeeding. I learned that the average age of breastfeeding worldwide ranges from 2 to 7 years of age, with a median age of 4 years old. This is a dramatic contrast with babies in the United States where only 60 percent are still being breastfed at 6 months according to the CDC.
Maybe this is why our culture is so squeamish about breastfeeding and particularly breastfeeding older babies, toddlers and preschoolers. Extended breastfeeding may be a biological and social norm worldwide, but here in the United States it is treated as obscenity or a sick joke. The intense debate spawned from Time magazine’s recent cover displaying a nursing 3-year-old is the perfect barometer by which we can get a reading on our cultural misgivings about extended breastfeeding.
My son Diego is now 4 and shows no signs of wanting to stop nursing. I don’t nurse him in public much anymore, even though he still asks me to sometimes, not because I am ashamed of the fact that I am breastfeeding a 4-year-old, but because I’d rather not have to deal with all the dirty looks and strange conversations. Diego, for his part, is completely not embarrassed of nursing. Nowadays, he mostly breastfeeds before he falls asleep at night and in the morning when he wakes up, but he also asks to nurse when he comes home from school or if he gets a cut or scrape and wants a mommy snuggle to make him feel better.
Although there are overwhelming health benefits for extended breastfeeding, I have to admit that this is not the main reason I continue to nurse. Babies, toddlers and small children ask for the breast for much more than nutrition. They come for love, warmth and affection. While it is true that moms can provide all these things without nursing, this certainly doesn't preclude breastfeeding from being another wonderful form of nurturing parenting.
In our case, we nurse because nursing is a relationship. Nursing is one of the special ways that I bond and connect with my growing son. As he grows and explores more each day, nursing is a warm, cozy place he can check in each night to feel safe in this big wide world. I know that it is good for him not because statistics can prove the nutritional, emotional or developmental benefits, but because I can feel it in my heart. And to me, that is what being a mother is all about.
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