My Personal Experience
Near the end of my breastfeeding relationship with my daughter (who I stopped nursing when she was just over three), I sat at a table having a nice Easter brunch with my husband's family.
My husband's cousin had a one year old at the time, and she asked me how I weaned my daughter because she was tired of nursing her son. I opened my mouth to tell her that I actually hadn't weaned my daughter yet and that she was still nursing a couple of times a day, when another family member piped up and started talking about someone at her church who still nurses her almost four year old. The discussion took a turn and left me feeling embarrassed and ashamed as everyone around me laughed and talked about how "gross" it was to still be feeding a toddler who could ask for it, who could walk over and pull down their mother's shirt themselves, etc. They said there must be something wrong with the mother because there's no reason a toddler needs to still be breastfeeding. They all forgot that I had been asked a question, and I never chimed in saying that they were essentially talking about me and that I felt their judgments were unfair.
I went home feeling pretty down and my husband later asked me if I felt awkward about the conversation. I said yes, but truthfully as the day went on, I felt less embarrassed about it, and my feelings turned into pride. I was doing something that I knew was right for my daughter, and I was doing it in the face of, apparently, a lot of opposition. I felt more secure than ever about my choices that night as I nursed my toddler to sleep.
Why You Don't Need To Feel Weird About It
When I look back, I wish I would have spoken up. I wish I would have put a face they could empathize with to the thing they were judging. I wish I would have made them think twice about bashing mothers for the choices that are made in circumstances they know nothing about.
If I could go back and know ahead of time what was going to happen, I would have taken a list outlining all of the reasons it's okay to breastfeed a toddler, and it would have looked like this:
- Breastmilk is beneficial for as long as you're prepared to give it. Our society has somehow reached the conclusion that cow's milk is ideal rather than the milk that is made specifically for our species by our species. Obviously we are not prepared in the slightest to put breastmilk on the shelves of our local supermarkets, but if you have a child who needs milk and a mother who is comfortably lactating, doesn't it seem a bit silly to offer cow's milk instead? Human milk contains the same array (and then some) of vitamins and nutrients as cow's milk, plus it's specifically catered to your child. Breastmilk has been shown to evolve and change based on your infant/toddler's needs. How cool is that? And perhaps most importantly, antibodies are passed through breastmilk for the duration of lactation. That means a greater chance of your child having immunity to various illnesses and/or being able to fight them off quicker.
- The WHO recommends feeding until 2 and however long after two that remains right for the family. We look to the World Health Organization for all sorts of advice when it comes to vaccinations, diseases, statistics, and medical research. Yet somehow this is a recommendation that people seem wary of or don't take seriously. I've seen people dismiss it as advice more pertinent to those in areas where nutritional foods are less available or where drinking water is unsafe, but as I've already outlined, breastmilk is beneficial to all kids (barring an allergy or intolerance, of course) from all walks of life and that doesn't magically go away once they start eating solids or have their first birthday.
- (This is the most important one.) Only YOU know your child. Only YOU know what's right for them, what's appropriate for them, and when they're ready to wean. My daughter was a high needs baby from the start and always relied heavily on nursing for comfort. She didn't eat many solid foods until she was about 15 months old, and it was a slow process even after that. She continued to thrive on mostly breastmilk, so her doctor said it was okay not to push the issue. I'd say she was a year and a half old before she was eating a 'normal' amount of food for her age, so weaning before then wasn't really an option. Months went by and I still knew that wasn't ready to wean. I knew because she is my child and that bond was ours alone, and I felt comfortable making the decision to let her self-wean. The nursing bond was so important to her that I needed her to at least show signs of being ready before I encouraged it to end. Eventually she got there. Did I ever see myself breastfeeding for over three years? Not even close. My daughter had other plans, though, and as her mother I was happy to set mine aside in favour of hers. Our extended breastfeeding relationship is something I will always remember fondly and never, ever regret.
We all probably have our own ideas about how long we'd deem "too long" to breastfeed a child. I myself have an age in mind that would be too far out of my own comfort zone. The key is to remember that we form these ideas based on our own experiences, and that our idea of "too long" might be someone else's idea of "just right." Being a mother is hard enough without needless judgment, especially when most of us are really just trying to do the best we can for our kids.
So whether you were done breastfeeding at six months on the nose, or whether you're still breastfeeding your four year old - own your choices. Don't let anyone make you feel like you're doing something wrong because you're trying to do what's right for your family. Be proud that you're being the mother your child needs, because that is so much more important than what anyone else thinks from the outside. And while you're feeling proud of yourself, be proud of the other moms who are doing the same, even if it's not something you would do. Uplift and empower each other to raise a generation of humans who can go on to do the same.
Drawbacks of Nursing a Toddler
Breastfeeding a toddler can be incredibly rewarding, but it also has some unique drawbacks. You're doing a great thing by extending your nursing relationships, but here are some less-than-great things that come with it:
- Nipple twisting. Yep, you heard me. Apparently for toddlers, they can look at one nipple and think "yay, milk" while looking at the other and think "yay, toy." And if you think it's easy to just yank their little hand away and tell them not to do that anymore, they also seem to have an amazing knack for totally forgetting you said anything by the next nursing session and they're right back at it. I played this little "game" with my toddler for months before she finally lost interest.
- Shirt pulling. Toddlers think boobs are no big deal. Mine would casually walk up to me in the middle of a restaurant or at a play group and ask for milk by pulling my shirt down. As you can imagine, this lead to more than a few embarrassing slips and flashes. And as with the nip twists, this took a few months for my toddler to grow out of.
- Awkward requests. For some reason I thought it was okay to refer to my boobs as, well, boobs. My daughter picked up on this and actually went with "booby" which I guess in a weird way is more kid-appropriate. But whenever she asked for milk, she didn't ask for milk. She asked for "booby". We'd be sitting having a nice talk with family and this little kid would run in and interrupt simply by saying "booby?"
It's all funny to look back on now, but at the time the struggle felt real.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Susana Smith from UK on December 04, 2017:
It can be tricky to navigate breastfeeding a toddler or older child. Sadly, it seems inevitable that we'll be subject to negativity and shaming attempts from family. We just have to stay strong in our belief that it's right for our little ones. Like you say, we know them best and we're the best judge of their needs.
I remember my mum saying to me when my youngest daughter was about 18 months, "you're not going to be one of those weirdos that still feeds their child when they're at school are you?" I replied that I had no idea - that I hadn't set an arbitrary date when breastfeeding would end. But the comment stung.
It didn't stop me though :) I'm just finishing up with my daughter...she's 4 yrs 4 months and she is at school. I'm so proud that we made it to natural term and that she is stopping when she's done rather than when society thought she should.