It’s 7 p.m. We have just finished dinner and are brushing our teeth. My 5-year-old son, J, and I sit down on the couch together. I read him several books. With each book he leans closer to me until his head is resting on my shoulder. Finally he says, “Boobie and go to sleep.” I carry him to the bedroom, we lie down together and he nurses to sleep. His face changes from the lively growing boy I see all day to the peaceful, angelic look I saw the day he was born.
I leave the bedroom and meet my husband in the hallway who is carrying my 2-year-old son, E, in a baby carrier. I scoop E out of the carrier and bring him into the bedroom next to J. I lie down with him and nurse him to sleep. His face resembles his brother’s as he falls asleep.
This has been our routine for as long as I can remember. Breastfeeding has been a part of my relationship with my children from the day they were born. It has taken on countless forms and phases as the years have passed — the newborn marathon nursing sessions, the twisty toddler moves, battles with clogged ducts and sore nipples, the biting phase, the nursing-all-night phase, the distracted thinking-he-might-wean phase. But it remains strong and constant. I am not counting down the days for it be over. Instead, I balance my needs with my children’s needs until we find a new normal. So far, each phase has included breastfeeding. I know it won’t last much longer.
Many people wonder how I can breastfeed a 5-year-old, let alone both boys at the same time. When my first son was born, I struggled getting started with breastfeeding. It was a painful time. I was full of anxiety and despair that my body was failing me. I was advised to supplement with formula from day one. My baby grew more and more fussy at my breast. He preferred the fast flow of the bottle. The more he drank from the bottle, the less milk my body made. I pushed through the struggles by reading everything I could find about breastfeeding. I contacted a lactation consultant who helped us get off the formula and exclusively breastfeed. I thought I would breastfeed for six months or maybe a year. This is our cultural norm, after all. But when it started working I couldn’t imagine forcing him to stop. We had worked so hard to get here.
I found mom friends, many who were breastfeeding older babies and children. I learned that it is normal for a child to breastfeed past infancy, sometimes until 7 years old, as has been the case throughout history and in other cultures. I learned that the World Health Organization recommends breastfeeding until “up to 2 years of age or beyond.” I learned that breastfeeding while pregnant is a safe option. I learned that sometimes, cultural norms and biological norms are two very different things.
When I became pregnant with my second son, I had no question that I would continue to breastfeed my first son. My older son would continue to gain from the emotional and nutritional benefits of breastfeeding and my newborn son would get all of the nutrients he would need to thrive. My oldest son was not ready to wean. I knew pushing him to wean before my second son arrived would cause him great distress, and although many women choose to wean at various times, it wasn’t the right decision for my family. With the drastic change our family was about to undergo with a new baby, I knew breastfeeding would continue to be one of J’s greatest supports.
J nursed until the day I gave birth to his little brother. He latched on for about 10 seconds that day, but he was mostly cautious of the new baby and kept his distance. In the coming weeks, he wanted to be on my lap at my breast just like E. I held E in my arm at one breast and J sat on my lap at the other. J struggled with having a new baby in the home taking up my time, but when they were both nursing, they were content. Two boobs and two boys worked nicely for finding peace in the chaos of a family in transition.
Now that they are bigger they can both sit on their bottoms, but I rarely breastfeed them both at the same time anymore. It’s too much moving and touching for me. J only nurses to sleep at night. He asks during the day sometimes, but I mostly say, “no.” He’s forgetting how to latch and it feels uncomfortable. Sometimes he rolls his eyes at me, but he usually just walks away. E nurses frequently. Whenever he comes near me he feels the need to latch on. He spends much of his night latched on as well. I get more sleep allowing him to do this, but I do look forward to sleeping on my stomach.
The majority of our breastfeeding happens when going to sleep, sitting around, someone fell down or they are sick. Otherwise, they spend their time running, jumping, playing and begging for hot dogs and ice cream. Breastfeeding solves most issues. I feel like it makes my life easier. It’s my secret weapon.
Some people feel it’s harmful to breastfeed an older child. They say the child will not learn to be independent or suffer long-term psychological harm. As a social worker, I assure everyone that what’s harmful to children is not keeping them close. “Extended” breastfeeding benefits a child’s health, intellectual development, social development and mental development. Many people feel breast milk loses its nutritional value at a certain age. But research has shown that breastmilk has great nutritional value for as long as our body makes it. Children do stop breastfeeding when they are ready, and it is long before they go to college.