Right before my son turned 2, when friends would see him breastfeeding and ask how old he was, I’d reply, “Almost 2.” The response was always the same: “Wow, you’re still breastfeeding?” That general disbelief would be followed by “Good for you!” or “I only lasted a month. Two years is fantastic!” or my personal favorite, “Damn, girl.” But now that my son is 3, my how the tune has changed. Basically the only thing anybody says is “Wait, what? You’re… still breastfeeding your 3-year-old?!”
Yep, the responses to my extended breastfeeding have drastically changed in a year alone. Now, people look on in disgust and roll their eyes. As soon as I tell someone my son’s age (or more often, even when I don’t) that person asks, “Are you going to breastfeed him when he’s in college?” The praise and support has changed to “That’s really selfish of you. He’s gotten all he can from breastfeeding. Now you’re just doing it for you.” Or, the best yet: When my own mother giggled embarrassedly and said, “It’s kind of pornographic.” Thanks, Mom?
Apparently two years is the socially acceptable time limit for breastfeeding your child; anything beyond that seems to be considered unnecessary and obscene. But the truth is there are innumerable benefits to extended breastfeeding — which, thankfully, have been brought to people’s attention recently thanks to celebrities who support the practice (bless you, Mayim Bialik, Kourtney Kardashian, Salma Hayek and Miranda Kerr).
Honestly, still breastfeeding my son after his third birthday wasn’t something I planned. The closer he got to turning 2, the more embarrassed I became by the fact that I was still nursing. I felt obligated to make excuses when he’d start rummaging around in my shirt for a boob. A few months after his second birthday, I started feeling like I couldn’t go out if it was going to be around the time I would breastfeed — because I knew people would be judgmental.
But really, why do people give a shit? I was never one of those people who felt comfortable breastfeeding in public; I spent the majority of my sister-in-law’s bridal shower sitting in a chair in the corner facing a wall, feeling like I was in a time-out so as not to offend the elderly relatives there.
My son, Trip, and I had a rough go with nursing when he was born; as so many moms know, the breastfeeding struggle is real. My supply simply wasn’t meeting Trip’s demand, so we spent many nights in tears (yes, both of us) while I sent my husband on a 2 a.m. run to CVS to get formula. I felt like such a failure, so when my body finally kicked into gear and breastfeeding became (almost) easy, I did a happy dance and celebrated my newfound ability to feed a tiny human. And once Trip got the hang of breastfeeding, that was it: He was a boob barnacle, attached by mouth or hand to my breasts at all times. And I was OK with that.
It wasn’t long before friends who’d had kids around the same time I did began weaning. They complained about their swollen boobs, stuffed cabbage leaves in their bras and bemoaned that they were still producing milk six months later. I just smiled, grateful for the little nugget snuggled into me, happily sucking away while I thought of how far from weaning we were.
Between Trip’s second and third birthday, he stopped wanting to nurse so much during the day and only nursed when I put him down for his nap and for the night. I thought, this is it. He’s weaning himself. Soon he’ll only nurse occasionally, and then not at all. But that never happened. And I was OK with that, too.
Because here’s the thing: When he’s ready, he’ll stop. It’s not about when I’m ready, or my husband is, or when my busybody neighbor is ready. It’s about Trip. And if he still feels like breastfeeding is something that helps him get to sleep, then I’m here for it. I don’t ever offer my boobs to him, but when he sits in my lap and fishes around for a snack, I don’t say no. After all, kids use pacifiers or suck their thumbs well into toddlerhood; that’s not seen as taboo. Why does it matter if they’re sucking something that happens to be a part of me?
The World Health Organization says, “Exclusive breastfeeding is recommended up to 6 months of age, with continued breastfeeding along with appropriate complementary foods up to two years of age or beyond.” A little louder for the people in the back: “… two years of age or beyond.”
The Mayo Clinic has this to say on the topic:
“The benefits of breast-feeding beyond infancy for a baby include:
- “Balanced nutrition. Breast milk is considered the gold standard for infant nutrition. As your baby gets older, the composition of your breast milk will continue to change to meet his or her nutritional needs. There’s no known age at which breast milk is considered to become nutritionally insignificant for a child.
- “Boosted immunity. As long as you breast-feed, the cells, hormones and antibodies in your breast milk will continue to bolster your baby’s immune system.
- “Improved health. Research suggests that the longer breast-feeding continues and the more breast milk a baby drinks, the better his or her health might be.”
I don’t know when Trip will want to stop. It could be another year, or it could be tomorrow. But if you’re feeling ashamed or embarrassed because you’re breastfeeding — or thinking about continuing to breastfeed — longer than anyone else you know, please don’t be. Ignore the haters. Even if the haters include your mom.
Some people don’t breastfeed at all. That’s great. Some people breastfeed for one month or a year or four. Whatever you feel is right for you and your child is right.