Twelve years ago, when our first kid was a toddler, we had a childless couple over for dinner. We were chatting in the living room when our adorable almost-3-year-old walked up, leaned her elbow on the arm of my chair, and dropped a verbal bomb. Just two little words (well, three, technically), and she said them so nonchalantly—as if she were casually offering me a cookie—that I almost spat my water across the room.
I watched our friends’ jaws hit the floor, then I broke the shocked silence with my own laughter. “No, thanks,” I said. “Maybe later.” Thankfully, our cherub was content with that response and skipped off happily. “Did she just say what I think she said?” our friend asked.
Yep, she did.
All three of our kids nursed until shortly after age 3. It was unusual for our daughter to have asked at that time—we’d pretty much cut out nursing other than at bedtime and first thing in the morning by that point. But we were still working on weaning, and what our friends witnessed was part of that process. Thankfully, they laughed along with me, but I’m sure that hearing a walking, talking child ask to nurse is quite a reality to take in if it’s not something you’re used to.
Since lots of opinions (and judgments) get tossed around any time this topic comes up, first let me tell you 10 things that are not reasons we nursed through toddlerhood:
1. To make people uncomfortable.
2. To make a statement and/or prove a point.
3. I’m perversely attached to breastfeeding—or just a pervert in general.
4. I’m insecure and looking for attention.
5. I need my children to need me.
6. I think I’m a superior mother.
7. I don’t know how to say no.
8. I don’t want my children to grow up.
9. I’m too lazy to feed them real food.
10. I want a trophy.
Those are some of the most common motivations I’ve seen attributed to moms who breastfeed their kids longer than whoever-is-commenting finds acceptable, but none of them are true for me. (Well, No. 8 is true, but that has nothing to do with breastfeeding.)
Here are 10 real reasons we nursed through toddlerhood:
1. Comfort. Nursing was our toddlers’ primary source of comfort, as it had been since birth. Some toddlers have pacifiers, some have blankies, some have nursing. I loved that there was nothing nursing couldn’t fix. We didn’t have terrible twos with any of our kids, and I attribute a lot of that to the fact that they hadn’t fully weaned yet. Toddlers need comfort and connection as they explore their burgeoning independence. Obviously, there are ways to comfort and connect besides nursing, but it worked well for us. I was thankful for that easy, familiar source of comfort for them.
2. Nutrition. Breastmilk doesn’t suddenly lose its nutritional value. In fact, it doesn’t even gradually lose its nutritional value. Clearly, as kids grow, they need more than just milk, but it remains a healthy source of protein, fats and vitamins as long as they continue. There’s no reason to switch to cow’s milk at one year of age, if both baby and mom are cool with continuing to breastfeed. When you think about it, cow’s milk is the breastmilk of a cow—it doesn’t really make sense that it would be preferable nutritionally to human breastmilk. That doesn’t mean that children should continue to breastfeed forever, but it does mean that there’s no reason to cut them off at some arbitrary number of months or years.
3. Money. Breastmilk costs exactly nothing. I didn’t see a reason to spend money on cow’s milk or some other milk alternative when nutritional milk was readily available at all times for free.
4. Convenience. If your nursing toddler asks for milk, you don’t even have to get off the couch. (Maybe there is something to that “lazy” thing after all.) Seriously, though, it’s like carrying a cooler of sippy cups around with you at all times. So convenient.
5. Research. My mom is a lactation consultant. I grew up immersed in the benefits of breastfeeding. Even so, I read a lot when I had my first baby. There is a lot of research that supports extended breastfeeding, and zero research showing that it does any harm. Anthropologist Katherine Dettwyler estimates that, based on comparable mammalian weaning factors, the natural weaning age for humans is between 2.5 and 7 years. Do a Google search for her research. It’s short, and quite fascinating.
6. Respect. Our kids were pretty keen on continuing to breastfeed past age 1. At some point in the second year, I started to feel less keen on it myself, but it didn’t feel right to just cut them off cold turkey. Nursing was a pretty big deal for them, and I respected that. Those second two years were really a long, slow, weaning process. There wasn’t a lot of trauma, other than some occasions when I said no and they were looking for a yes. Some simple distraction or “not now, later” usually did the trick. We stopped nursing in public. Then we only nursed at certain times. Then we cut those times off one by one. It wasn’t necessarily easy all the time, but neither is parenting. I felt like letting them wean at (mostly) their own pace honored our nursing relationship and their attachment to it.
7. Calm. Toddlers can be like little Tasmanian devils, tearing through the world in a crazed whirlwind of exploding vocabulary, physical skill and willpower. Nursing provided an oasis of calm several times a day that I’m not sure we’d have been able to achieve otherwise. I think that also might have contributed to their lack of tantrums. Not that there were never any fits, but for 2-year-olds, they were quite few and far between.
8. Body Image. This barely counts as a reason, because it’s mostly vanity and 100 percent selfish, but I’m including it anyway. I know not every woman loses weight with breastfeeding, but I did. The baby weight melted right off and stayed off. Also, I’m barely an A-cup normally, but while I was nursing I got to be a solid B. So nursing was great for my physique. That wasn’t actually a reason we continued to breastfeed, but it was a nice fringe benefit. Burning those extra several hundred calories a day was pretty sweet.
9. Experience. I was breastfed until I was 2 ½. My husband was around 4 when he stopped. And we’re both pretty normal people, without any weird mommy obsessions or boob fetishes. I’ve also known a lot of kids who nursed well into toddlerhood, and none of them turned out to be serial killers. So I didn’t have the squeamishness or fears some people get when they think about a toddler nursing. It seemed totally normal to me.
10. Confidence. Even with all of these reasons for nursing into toddlerhood, I’m aware that a lot of people still think it’s weird. The reasons against continuing to breastfeed past a year usually have something to do with sexualization of breastfeeding, discomfort with a kid who can talk asking for milk from a breast (even though that’s what they’ve always done, just without the vocabulary), concerns about what other people might think, or some combination of “ew” and “ick” factors that are usually a result of lack of exposure or experience. I was confident in knowing that there wasn’t anything bizarre about it because I’d seen and known lots of moms who nursed toddlers. I was confident in knowing that there weren’t any ill effects from nursing into toddlerhood because I’d done it myself. I was surrounded by supportive people, which helped, too.
If you met my children, you’d never know they nursed until they were 3. They don’t remember it, and don’t think anything of it. Some kids who nurse until 3 or 4 do remember it, and that’s OK, too. Our societal discomfort over “extended” breastfeeding is entirely cultural, and no argument that I’ve seen against it really holds any legitimate weight.
I do totally understand people not wanting to nurse that long, and I wouldn’t ever tell a mom (or even think) that she should breastfeed as long as we did. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends at least one year. The World Health Organization recommends two years, and then however long mom and baby mutually want to continue.
But those are guidelines, not rules. Some women are unable to breastfeed, and that’s OK. Some women have their own private reasons for not breastfeeding, and that’s OK. Some women breastfeed for less than the recommended length of time for numerous reasons, and that’s OK.
It’s also OK to nurse a child who can ask to nurse. It’s OK to breastfeed a child who can eat real food. It’s OK to take weaning really, really slowly if that’s what works best for you and your baby.
Motherhood is hard enough without putting pressure on ourselves or judging one another’s choices. I hope that explaining my reasons for nursing longer than most makes that choice more understandable for people who might find it odd. Feel free to ask if there’s anything further you want to know. I’m happy to answer questions, trophy or no trophy.