Monday, March 22, 2010

ControverSunday(ish): Extended Breastfeeding

I need to start writing these entries as soon as Perpetua posts the topic. I'm pretty sure I am the very last one to write her ControverSunday post this week. I couldn't wait to read them, and they were all really interesting, thoughtful, well-written posts that make me proud to belong to this little circle of bloggers. However, in retrospect, I probably shouldn't have read everyone's post before writing my own because now I'm convinced I have nothing new to add to the conversation, and when you read these excellent entries, you will agree. But, I haven't been able to stop thinking about this topic since Perpetua announced it last week, and I can't tell you how good it feels to finally be sitting down to write it.

Before we get started, I want to once again thank Perpetua for hosting and Accidents for the badge. And go read their posts because they are real live smart people with fascinating things to say on the subject. And be sure to check out the links on Perpetua's page to everyone else who participated. I'd link here, but she has the most current and thorough list, and I don't want to leave anyone out.

So, here we go!
Charlotte will be one whole year old on Wednesday. As of now, we are still nursing. Ask me how much longer we'll be doing it. Go ahead. But, I won't be able to answer you.

See, this is just another example of how becoming a parent made me a liar. Because, prior to having Charlotte, I fell neatly into the "If they're old enough to ask for it, they're too old" category. I also questioned the motives of mothers nursing two and three-year olds, wondering whether they were carrying on due to a need to be needed, an attempt to keep their babies, well, babies, longer than was necessary. And, to be perfectly honest, I still think that is probably true for some people. I KNEW I would not nurse any longer than one year because once it became biologically unnecessary and my baby could drink whole milk, there would be absolutely no point. Plus, it would be creepy.

But, here's what's changed.

I realized how ridiculous it is to say that a child who can walk up to you and demand to nurse is too old because mine was doing that at ten months! Given my former dedication to make it to a year, why would I stop just because she has sturdy legs and a vice grip on my shirt? I thought it would be weird to have a child "ask" to nurse, verbally or otherwise, but I actually find it hilarious and adorable when I sit in the rocker with Charlotte, and she takes her pacifier out of her mouth, hands it to me, and starts pulling at my shirt. So, that's not a reason for me to stop. But, hypothetically, if a mother was creeped out by that, there would be nothing wrong with that. And, once she stops feeling comfortable nursing, she should stop. No questions asked. No judgement.

And as for my claim that some mothers keep nursing because of their own desire to feel needed, I maintain that it's true. But, I have a few (possibly conflicting) thoughts on this. On the one hand, if a child and mother are both enjoying nursing, they certainly should not feel the need to stop at an arbitrary date. There may be a point, however, when motives play into the issue.

In my humble opinion, the health benefits of extended nursing are probably pretty insignificant, unless your baby isn't eating many solids. But, Charlotte's binky isn't fortified with vitamins, and I'm not going to take THAT away from her abruptly because she's a year old, so not everything boils down to nutrition. If a child is comforted by nursing, if mother and baby bond through nursing, if a mother wants a little cuddle time after working outside the home all day, then by all means they should not feel pressured to stop before they are ready.

Unfortunately, I have witnessed some discussions online that make me think some moms might have less than noble intentions. I saw one woman confide in her fellow nursing mothers that she was saddened by her daughter's waning interest in nursing now that she's a toddler. She said she wished her daughter would get more of her nutrition from breast milk because it was an ego boost for her to provide nourishment for her child. Getting a little weird, but okay. THEN! She started wondering if she could do anything about this. Perhaps offer less food? Umm, what? Shouldn't you be encouraging your TODDLER to grow, fostering her independence, not stifling it in an effort to stroke your ego?

I have also seen extended nursing conversations that are all about one-upping each other. It's wonderful to be proud of nursing for two or even three years, because it's hard. And quite a commitment. But, vowing to nurse a child until he is four, without taking into consideration that he might not WANT to, and then bragging about it to like-minded people, is just...weird.

But, you know, to each her own. I might not agree with your reasoning, but that doesn't mean you have to stop what you're doing.

For me, the issue of sexuality has very little to do with this conversation. I have no problem seeing my breasts as dually functioning. When I'm nursing my daughter, they aren't in the least bit sexual. And other times, they are. And that works for me and everyone in my family. So, if I were to see a four-year old nursing in public, I would be disturbed, but not because I see what he or she is doing as being sexual, but just because I think of it as regressive behavior. I would be equally disturbed to see a kindergartener drinking from a bottle or sucking on a pacifier.

Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe nursing is just like cuddling to those families, and I certainly wouldn't suggest that a child is ever too old for a hug. But, that's my opinion, my comfort level. I fully support your right to nurse as long as you and your child are comfortable. But, like others have suggested in other posts, don't expect an end to the sideways glances if you choose to do it in public. We're just not used to it. And most of us are not comfortable with it. And we don't have to be.

As for me, I am ready to be done. Maybe I have a hard time understanding the need to nurse longer than is "necessary" because I have had such a complicated relationship with it. Breastfeeding has all but taken over my life this past year.

First, there were the newborn days when she was constantly, and I mean CONSTANTLY attached to me. I ate most of my meals on the couch while nursing, occasionally dropping food onto Charlotte's head. I couldn't even have a cup of coffee with a friend without having to negotiate the nursing cover and awkwardly position the baby at the breast while trying to maintain discretion and carry on a conversation. I got used to all this, and it was all pretty normal.

But then came the thrashing, the screaming, the pushing me away in public and in privacy. Then there came the refusal of all silicone nipples and therefore, the end to any hopes I might have had at an evening away. Then came the teeth and the biting. Then came the constant night feedings after we had just got her sleeping through the night.

I'm not saying my experience is any more difficult than anyone else's. And maybe a different (better?) mother could have loved nursing despite all these things. But, I just...didn't.

Right now, I never have to nurse while we're out. Charlotte loves table food, and only needs the breast before bed or a nap. I don't know that I have the fortitude to aggressively wean her right this minute. I might just offer whole milk frequently and stop offering her breast milk, only nursing when she asks. But, eventually I'm going to have to start refusing.

It breaks my heart, but I am so TIRED. I'm tired of clasping and unclasping my nursing bras. Hell, I'm tired of nursing bras. Tired of counting cups of coffee and counting the hours since I had that second glass of wine. Even though these days, it's relatively simple, and I don't have to deal with nursing covers, cluster feedings, or pumping, I just don't think I will be totally at ease until we're done.

I'll miss it. As difficult as this year has been, I will miss her playing with my hair. I'll miss the cuddle time. I'll miss watching her go into a trance and drift off to sleep. No amount of pretty bras, margaritas, and bottomless cups of coffee will replace those things.

But, we have so much more to look forward to! And, who has time to pine for nursing days when you're taking your toddler to the beach for the first time? Not me.


  1. I love this post. I really do. You covered everything and were honest about your opinions. I also think you expressed so well the dual nature of breastfeeding- the good things about it and the hard things about it. Lovely.

  2. Thank you, both!

    Needed to hear that. :)

  3. What a great post! I love how honest you are about it all. And I think it's completely natural how "done" you are, even though you'll miss parts. I think that's where I'll be.

    Oh, and this: "But then came the thrashing, the screaming, the pushing me away in public and in privacy." And this: "Then came the constant night feedings after we had just got her sleeping through the night." That's where I am right now. Le sigh.

  4. Thanks, Ginger!

    Ugh, it sounds like you are going though the same things we were six months ago. It got easier for us around 9 months. Once she was eating solids regularly things got a lot better. But, who knows?

    Babies are evil.

  5. Babies ARE evil! :)

    I think it makes perfect sense to be tired at this point. It's been a YEAR. Sometimes, because it goes so fast, it's hard to wrap your head around the fact that you've been doing all this for a freaking YEAR.

    This cycle of posts has helped me realize is that breastfeeding is a lot like all the other things that make us sad about our kids getting older (like packing away the tiny onesies). It's simultaneously tough and awesome to watch them grow up and need us less.

    Thanks for the post, and no worries about the "ish"--it's close enough to Sunday in my book :)

  6. Yeah, I was nursing her to sleep tonight, and thinking about the fact that this is the 365th day in a ROW that I have done this.

    It made me so tired.

    Plus, apparently my left boob has gone on strike, so I'm thinking I'll just pack it up, go to Vegas, and she'll be weaned when I get home.

    That's how it works, right?

  7. I don't know, because I haven't tried to do it yet, but I can imagine that weaning at this point might be easier than in six months. Not that it's comparable, but we've taken away beloved toys that A. seemed very attached to -- like the exersaucer he started to tip over and fall out of -- and he hasn't seemed to miss them at all, even when they're available at daycare. So if you're done now, I'd say go to Vegas, literally or metaphorically, and start wearing those regular bras again.

  8. LOL, thanks.

    I think she might be making the decision for me, anyway. This morning she wasn't interested. So, who knows? Maybe this won't be as hard as I thought!

    Famous last words...