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How I wound up nursing my kids till they were four

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.

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About Christine

I'm a full-time mother to two kids, an ex-lawyer, a breastfeeding counselor, a skeptic, and (to steal a phase from Penn & Teller) a "science cheerleader." You can reach me through my Facebook page.

Posted on May 1, 2012, in Breastfeeding, Parenting and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. I have a friend that was nursed until 4 or 5 and has no memory of it and hates it when people bring it up and never wants to talk about it. I find it so strange that she has no memory of it.

  2. Given the trouble working moms have even breastfeeding to six months (c.f. http://t.co/R8U9SavZ), this seems like a pipe dream for most.

    • Yes, I have been very lucky. My husband makes enough money so that I could stay home with my kids. I happen to live within driving distance of a freestanding birth center where support for breastfeeding is fantastic. I found La Leche League and got the information and support I needed to get through the troubles.

      I’m not interested in browbeating women into breastfeeding. I do think people deserve to have the facts about breastfeeding and why (all things being equal) formula is inferior. However, as I’ve said before, all things are not equal, and we need to stop just pressuring mothers to nurse, and start supporting mothers in nursing at work and in our society at large. It’s disgusting to me that a woman’s coworkers can complain about her pumping, and make it impossible for her to keep giving her baby mother’s milk.

  3. I never thought I’d nurse longer than a year. When my first turned one, I went to LLL. There, I met others! She nursed until essentially 3yo, my second…just over 5yo! (And, yes: that is a whole different scenario.) I was pregnant with #3 and he was three months old when #2 weaned. The evening before kindergarten (and, nursing had been sporadic since #3 had been born), I told him: “you’re not too big nurse, but you’re big enough that you don’t have to nurse.” Your story resonated as, in my mind, the deadline was kindergarten.

    I don’t think women are pressured to nurse. I think the information is out there and we put the pressure on ourselves–or become inspired ourselves. When I was first pregnant, the story was “higher IQs for breastfed babies”–and since then, there has been more and more information. But there should be support in all workplaces to enable a mother to continue pumping while working. Additionally, society should stop pressuring families in general about how long a baby should sleep, where the baby should sleep, etc. All I wanted to hear when my baby was little was how great she was from the pediatrician. I didn’t want a diatribe about all the things she thought I was doing wrong. (Yes, we changed doctors!) But, again, I think there’s more societal pressure on parenting style (including the idea that bottles are superior and freeing) than there is to breastfeed.

  4. I really enjoy reading posts about normal breastfeeding relationships! 🙂 I hope that whenever he weans, it will be just as special as when he was nursing! You inspire me!

  5. Love this! Beautifully written! I’m nursing my almost 3 year old and it’s working out well for us. It’s not something I had planned on doing, but it’s what she wants, and I’m ok with that. Thanks for writing this up!

  6. Your story is very similar to mine in many ways. I nursed my first daughter until 17 months (I had supplemented with formula from when she was about 3-4 months) First, I said I’d nurse her for 6 months or until she got teeth. She didn’t get teeth til about 9 months. Then, she turned 1 and it seemed so silly to me to stop nursing her just because it was day 365. So I continued.

    Then, I became pregnant with twin boys. I knew I’d nurse them past a year, but figured they’d wean around 18 months like their sister. Well, they didn’t. I said I wouldn’t nurse past 2. Two came and went, and again, I felt kinda silly to wean them just because they were 2. And they certainly didn’t have a calendar of when they’d stop. I remember saying “I won’t nurse until 4!” One weaned at 3 1/2 and the other weaned at a little over 4 1/2. I NEVER thought I’d nurse them for as long as I did.

    It’s good to hear stories like this!

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