“A kid who can write her own name shouldn’t be nursing. If you like your nipples sucked, let your husband do it.”
“It’s not being used as a form of birth control; it’s being done for the sole satisfaction of the parent.”
“I think that most of this is for the mother’s benefit. I personally know of one instance of this, and in that case it was the mother who was unable to let it go…”
“She must be nursing for her own gratification.”
Those are all genuine quotes about nursing an older child. And I hear and read all the time about people saying “Oh she’s just doing it for her own gratification,” or “at that age, it’s not for the child – the mother is doing it for her own purposes.” I have two, related, problems with this sentiment.
First, it’s very silly. Imagine if people said stuff like:
“There’s an admittedly fine line between the beautiful bond between mother and infant and the weird gratification some women get from cuddling a baby in inappropriate and exhibitionistic ways.”
“A kid who can write her own name shouldn’t be read to anymore.”
“At that age, lullabies are not needed to put a child to sleep; it’s being done for the sole satisfaction of the parent.”
“I think that kissing a booboo for a preschooler is really for the mother’s benefit – these mothers are just unable to let it go…”
“By now she must be brushing her child’s hair for her own gratification.”
If anyone shared the above opinions publicly, people would think they were nuts. Children have needs and wants. Some continue in one form or another from birth through the school years. No one would seriously argue that parents shouldn’t hug their children once the children can ask for it, or that a parent shouldn’t do anything for a child that she can arguably do for herself, or that a pleasant parenting routine must cease once it is not strictly necessary for the child’s physical health. We all understand that parents frequently do”babyish” things with their older children because it pleases the child, it helps accomplish the parents’ goals, it provides emotional support, or it’s more convenient. Yet somehow when it comes to breastfeeding, this understanding is forgotten. And I think it must be because of my second issue -
So frequently, critics of sustained nursing bring a sexually perverted perspective to the conversation. Mothers and babies do not find anything sexual in nursing. It’s the people loudly complaining who seem to find breastfeeding sexually charged. Look at the way people criticized sustained nursing when that Time issue came out:
“If you like your nipples sucked, let your husband do it”
“When your kid starts noticeably sporting wood at meals, it might be time to wean.”
“Sorry, this looks like a circus midget having the time of his life.”
“I think the biggest deal is that he’s still walking up to her boobs. If you wanna breastfeed until your kid is a teenager, then fine…do your thing. But pump the damn milk!”
“Borderline child porn.”
“At this age what is the difference in this and a father making his daughter touch his private parts?”
For people who relate to these comments, please try to get some perspective. Breastfeeding is not inherently sexual. Breasts are not inherently sexual. Yes, our current culture in America treats breasts almost exclusively as sex organs. Yes, many people assume that it’s a basic biological fact that breasts are sexual. They forget that people once felt the same way about women’s calves. That many people today feel the same way about a woman’s bare face or exposed hair. Throughout human history, different cultures have “known” that certain female body parts are so sexually stimulating they must be hidden, and that they could never be viewed as just a normal body part.
Families who are used to sustained nursing view a breast just like you view a woman’s leg. Sure, in some situations, to some people, it might be something sexy, but it’s not perverse or abusive to let your preschooler sit on your lap. Try to adjust, and realize your discomfort is a perception, not a fact. It’s OK if you feel uncomfortable. You can’t necessarily control that. But do please engage your rationality and recognize that you feel uncomfortable for the same reason that imams feel uncomfortable with they see Western women wearing pants.
To sum up, it’s silly to think that a benign, useful parenting behavior becomes wrong if it’s no longer strictly necessary, or the child can request it, or do it for herself. Nursing is no different – there’s no time when it magically becomes illicit and sexual. If you see a mother nursing an older child and it seems sexually perverse to you, you are the only one of the three people who is having sexual thoughts.
First, you must understand that I never imagined I’d breastfeed an older child. When I was ten or so, our next door neighbor was still nursing her four year old, and let me tell you, we thought she was a freak! I mean, she was a really nice person, and our families had a good relationship, but the nursing thing sure seemed beyond quirky.
Years later, when I decided to have a baby, my first thought on nursing was that I would do it, but I would stop once the baby got teeth. Perhaps understandable for someone who didn’t know how young babies are when they get teeth, nor how nursing mechanics really work. When I did some reading and learned that babies should nurse at least one year, I got on board with that.
Then my daughter was born – the day before I was scheduled to take a breastfeeding class at the birthing center. I nursed her in the first hour after she was born and thought I was doing OK. But in the next few months I had about every breastfeeding problem except for mastitis and low supply. It’s funny how I used to be worried about nursing a baby with teeth, because a baby with tongue-tie quite effectively lacerated my nipples in short order, no teeth required. Even after we corrected that, it was so hard to latch her on. I felt like I needed at least four hands. (I would have slapped anyone who suggested I put a blanket over the baby while nursing in public – I needed to use both hands and studiously watch what I was doing to get even a so-so latch – there was no way to drape a blanket over us and actually nurse.) And once I had figured out oversupply and forceful letdown, I developed yeast. Basically my nipples hurt like hell for at least three months straight.
And yet, I hung in there because I had decided breastfeeding was very important to me, and I felt if I could just get through the difficulties it would be worth it. And I did, and it was. Finally nursing became a good part of life. It was a moment to sit down and rest, to love on my baby, and as she grew it became more and more of a parenting tool. In addition to providing the nutrition and hydration she needed, nursing offered soothing, reassurance, and a gateway into sleep.
Before I knew it, my baby was turning one. And she was still a baby. It seemed silly to try to make her stop at that point. How could nursing be recommended one day, but totally useless the next? On her birthday she wasn’t a year older, she was a day older. Besides, the WHO recommends nursing until at least two. Plus I have to say there was a certain determination on my part, like “It took us sooo long to get this working, I’ll be damned if I make her stop now!” So we kept going. And nursing continued to be useful, quelling tantrums and making nap time peaceful, as well as serving as a nutritional safety net.
By the time Chloe turned two, I was a member of La Leche League, and I had a community where nursing until children are ready to stop is perfectly normal. I really couldn’t see a positive reason to make her wean when she showed no inclination to. Nursing was still a useful parenting tool, and something my daughter enjoyed and benefited from. On the other side of the scale, the arguments for weaning were weak to say the least. The predominant argument people have against continued nursing boils down to “It seems weird and makes me uncomfortable.” My husband had the least dumb reservation about my nursing a two-year old – he said, “If it were me, it would drive me nuts to have such a big kid lying in my lap so often.” Since it didn’t bother me, and other people’s argument of “Ew” was unconvincing to me, we kept going.
Chloe turned four years old shortly after I became pregnant with Claire. Around that time it started to really hurt me when she nursed. Aha! – a good reason to balance against the arguments for continuing nursing. Given her age, I felt comfortable telling her that nursing was hurting me and I needed to stop. Of course by that time she had been “weaning” for years, so that she only nursed at bedtime by the time I decided to stop. It was relatively easy to substitute a sippy cup of water and lots of cuddling, and we were done.
Of course with my second child, it seemed perfectly natural from the beginning that I would nurse her for years. As time went by and she turned four herself, I thought about it and decided I would feel uncomfortable nursing a five year old. That’s just my personal, arbitrary, gut-feeling limit. (And for the record, I would never tell any mother she should nurse beyond her own emotional comfort zone, be that 3 months or 3 years.) I started subtly discouraging nursing. She had naturally pared down to nursing just at bedtime long before her fourth birthday, and shortly after turning four she began forgetting on occasion, or only wanting one side. Finally, for various reasons we moved the girls into the same bedroom, and unexpectedly this caused Claire to totally wean. The shakeup in bedtime routine along with the security of having her sister nearby seemed to extinguish her need for that last nighttime connection with Mom.
People might be shocked to learn that my kids are both independent and socially adept. I’ll never forget that Chloe got on the bus the first day of kindergarten without sparing even a glance over her shoulder at me. Claire is a favorite among the daycare kids – when she walks in, people call her name like she’s Norm walking into Cheers. They’re normal kids. Maybe even more confident and secure than average. And people might also be surprised that Chloe has no memory of nursing. I don’t know if Claire will remember or not.
The other thing you might find surprising: when I see another mother nursing a 3-4 year old, that kid looks GIANT to me! Somehow when it’s your own child, who you’ve been with since infanthood, they still seem little enough to nurse. But you can look at other people and think, “Wow, how does she balance that child on her lap anymore?” So I can kind of sympathize with others who are shocked at older nurslings. When it’s your own baby, and you hold them as they grow day by day, it just seems natural.