What People Get Wrong About Extended Breastfeeding

by Wendy Wisner
Originally Published: 

I didn’t breastfeed as long as the mom who is nursing her 6-year-old daughter, but I nursed past the baby stage, past the toddler stage, and into the “little kid” stage. My older son weaned when he was in Pre-K. My almost-3-year-old is still going strong, and I expect him to go another few years.

When my first son was a newborn, I had no idea I’d be nursing him as long as I did. We had lots of nursing challenges at the beginning — I was just happy when it took less than fifteen tries to latch him on. I wasn’t thinking about long-term nursing goals.

But as the years went on, breastfeeding him just still kept feeling normal. If it hadn’t, I would have stopped. After he was 3 or so, it wasn’t something we did outside of the house (most kids aren’t nursing much at this age, but some are). When he got close to weaning, he just did it a little before bed, the way another child might suck on the end of a blanket or a thumb.

I’m not here to change your mind about long-term breastfeeding. You are going to feel how you feel about it. People have visceral reactions to seeing young children breastfeeding. I understand: I felt that way before I did it myself.

But that discomfort is something specific to our culture. In other cultures, and around the world, breastfeeding toddlers and young children is common and even seen out in the open. Breasts are not seen as sexual objects, but as feeders and soothers.

We all have the right to feel whatever we feel about it. But we have to realize that our ideas about breastfeeding aren’t universal and are specific to our time and culture.

I would never tell a mother how long she should nurse — that is entirely something she and her child get to decide. And nursing my children long-term doesn’t make me a better parent. Nursing is one of the ways I’ve found to connect with my children and keep them healthy. There are so many valid and beautiful ways to do this — nursing is just one.

But after reading the comments sections on about a million different breastfeeding posts, I am floored by some of the ignorant and even hateful things that are being said about breastfeeding kids and their moms.

I’d like to clear some things up. Again, I’m not here to convert you, but to provide some info and ask you to open up your mind a little bit.

Here are the most common comments I see on posts about long-term breastfeeding, and my responses:

1. “Doesn’t the milk lose its nutritional value over time?”

Nope. Breastmilk stays breastmilk, with all the same nutritional qualities, for the entire time a woman nurses. The immunities that protect your child from viruses and disease also stay present. As time goes on, you begin to produce less milk (it’s supply and demand, and kids nurse less the older they get), but the composition and benefits of the milk stay constant.

2. “Can’t you just pump and put it in a cup?”

Toddlers and young kids are nursing as a means of comfort and soothing as much as for the nutritional boost. Breastfeeding makes kids feel grounded and cozy. Pacifiers, thumb-sucking, teddy bears, security blankets — these all serve a similar purpose for kids. If you’d rather your kid have another way to soothe, go for it! But breastfeeding is how lots of moms do it, and putting it in a cup would do nothing for a child who is looking to nurse (plus, moms of older kids don’t usually have pumps lying around, and find them less effective as their supply decreases to meet the lesser demands of an older nurser).

3. “What about when they get teeth?”

Latching onto the breast doesn’t involve teeth. It’s like drinking from a straw. You form a seal around the breast with your lips and tongue. In fact, the child’s tongue covers the lower gum to protect the breast from teeth. A child who bites is biting, not nursing. Yes, some do so when they are teething. But biting is transitory, and there are ways to deal with it should it come up — almost never a reason to wean.

4. “What about when they’re old enough to ask for it?”

A nursing baby has been “asking for it” since birth. Even before words, there are the fluttering lips, the rooting, all those feeding cues. Older babies might tug on your shirt or point to your breasts when they want to nurse. Yes, as kids accrue language, they ask to breastfeed just as they would ask for a bottle, a pacifier, or another hunk of bread. It’s usually good to have your kid call it something simple and discreet (my kids just called it “milk”), so you don’t have to hear your child call out for “boobies” from the other end of the grocery store.

5. “Aren’t you afraid you are raising a ‘baby’ who can’t self-soothe?”

Are you asking about the fact that my child comes to me for soothing a lot of the time? I bet your child does too. You may not nurse your kid, but like me, you probably sometimes cuddle your kid in your lap to soothe away an upset. Nursing is not the only way I soothe my child. We talk things out, he sits on the floor and bangs his fists, whatever works. Nursing is one of the things in my toolkit. And as the years go on, my kids need it less and less for soothing, and find their own ways to self-soothe. It happens on its own, and in its time. All kids crave independence — it’s part of growing up.

6. “After a certain point it’s for the mom, not the child.”

You can’t make a child nurse. Really and truly. Kids do it because they want to. You probably know that kids have this built-in desire to suck when they’re little — that’s a biological urge that starts with nursing (and is alternately satisfied with bottles, pacifiers, and thumbs). Most moms who nurse their kids do enjoy the coziness, and the flood of happy hormones, but it can also sometimes be annoying and bothersome. No mom does it simply for herself: she does it because it makes her child happy, and that makes her happy.

7. “Only kids in developing countries need the extra nutrition.”

Some argue that there is no biological need to continue nursing in modern society. It’s true that most of us have enough food in America, but there is more to breastmilk than food. First, there are the immune factors and disease-preventing agents that breastmilk provides for the duration of nursing. But besides that, moms and kids nurse to love and connect.

8. “But your child will remember it!”

That’s true sometimes. My own child remembers breastfeeding. He mostly remembers it like a hug. Some kids remember how their mother smelled or other small details. But the reason people are concerned about it is that they think breasts are basically sexual, and toddlers and young children will be somehow traumatized if they have nursing memories. Kids who breastfeed grow up knowing breasts as soothers first and foremost. And kids don’t nurse at an age when they would associate breasts with sex. Almost all kids who nurse long-term wean by 5, 6, or 7 years old, well before breasts become sexualized in their minds.

9. “That borders on sexual abuse.”

This one makes my blood boil. The answer is: no. It’s natural and normal, not sexual, and no one is being forced to do it. Case closed.

10. “Aren’t you worried that your child will never stop?”

I actually did worry about that when my first child was nursing. I wondered if he’d ever wean. But just like every milestone, it happened. Some of my friends who nursed long-term had kids who weaned sooner than my son; some had kids who went longer. It’s just like getting out of diapers, going to school for the first time, taking the training wheels off the bike. Kids lose the urge to suck and connect with their moms in that way. The last nursing session to go for my son was his right-before-bed nurse. In time it evolved so he’d rather just talk before bed, read a book, cuddle. Life changes, and weaning happens. I promise: it really does.

There are more moms nursing long-term than you might realize. I thought my son was the only one at Pre-K who was still nursing, but a few years later I learned there was another mom at his school nursing her child. As kids get older, nursing is usually done at home, not in public. That’s why you don’t see it. But there are many of us out there nursing our young children. We are normal, and so are our kids.

So I encourage you to think outside the box, and realize that long-term nursing is natural and more prevalent than you might realize. And if you are one to criticize, please learn some facts, and save your anger for actual problems — not an exchange of love between a mom and child.

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