When I was pregnant for the first time, I would never have considered breastfeeding past three. I knew I wanted to nurse my baby but, unlike every other aspect of pregnancy, I didn’t want to know about breastfeeding, think about breastfeeding, or hear about breastfeeding.
I just wanted to breastfeed my baby.
My thinking about it stopped there.
Maybe I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to do it and I didn’t want to set myself up for failure?
Nursing the baby turned out to be much more difficult than I thought it would be.
Breastfeeding at first was harder than I thought
A few days postpartum I ended up with a painful breast infection.
My breast was tender and swollen and an angry red line radiated out from it.
I could feel the milk ducts were blocked.
I cried a lot.
Getting that infection forced me to slow down, rest, and spend lots of time skin-to-skin with the baby.
I got help from a friend, used hot compresses and massage to unblock the ducts, nursed the baby often, and managed to keep breastfeeding.
With help from my husband and friends, I made sure I was always well hydrated. I ate healthy, nourishing whole foods. And, probably most importantly, I rested.
Even though it was hard, I didn’t, honestly, consider giving the baby formula.
Cow’s milk is for calves, human milk is for human babies
Instead of using infant formula, which smelled foul and had a long list of ingredients I wouldn’t want to drink, I followed my mom‘s advice: “Cow’s milk is for calves, human milk is for human babies,” is what she always told me.
In about a week the breast infection went away.
I exclusively nursed my daughter for the first months of her life, until she got interested in solid foods. Then I continued to nurse her. We stayed away from any form of artificial milk. That daughter was nine years old when I first wrote this post, and is turning 20 this summer.
Breastfeeding past three
I nursed her for much longer than I expected to, much longer than any book said I should, and much longer than most of my family felt comfortable with (tough luck for them).
I ended up breastfeeding past three, breastfeeding through my second pregnancy, and tandem nursing my girls.
I also wrote my first magazine feature during that time, called “Mommy, I Want Nummies: The Benefits of Nursing Past Three,” as a way to research extended breastfeeding (my daughter was only two when I wrote it and I had no idea if I would really nurse her past three. I did…) for Mothering Magazine.
That was a million years ago though I’m still fond of that article.
More recently, I wrote an article about nursing my son for a column in the Ashland Daily Tidings.
I’ll post a version of it here:
When we sat down to lunch this afternoon, my girlfriend Humaiya, also the mother of three children, marveled at my son, who was putting rice on his fork with his hands and then wobbling it up to his mouth.
“Look at him eat!” she cried. “He’s not still nursing, is he?!”
“I’m planning to rent a house near where he goes to college,” I joked to another friend who asked me in an exasperated voice when I was going to wean my son. “That way he can keep nursing.”
My son turned three in October.
He nurses before his mid-day nap and at bedtime.
Sometimes I nurse him at other times too, when he feels sad or is really overtired or overwhelmed.
He settles right down, his whole body relaxes, and he sighs with deep contentment.
He doesn’t have the vocabulary to tell me in words but if he did I think he’d say that nursing makes him feel safe and protected and loved.
“That’s so gross,” an editor said to me on the phone when I mentioned that a family I was writing an article about had a nursing toddler. “If they’re old enough to ask for it, they’re too old to nurse!”
That sentiment is so often repeated that it has almost become a cliché.
But why are we disgusted by the idea of a toddler nursing?
When I went to visit my friend Sue’s family in Mississippi when we were in college, her great aunt started talking about the black people in her town.
“I let one touch me once,” Sue’s great aunt said with the same mixture of revulsion, fascination, and horror in her voice that my editor used to talk about breastfeeding past three.
Sue’s great aunt was disgusted by the idea of a black person touching her because it went against the social norms of her generation.
Though it may not be an entirely fair comparison, I think my editor (a childless woman in her 40s) was disgusted by the idea of a two- or three-year-old nursing because it goes against the social norms of her generation, not because there’s anything empirically wrong with it.
In fact, myriad scientific studies suggest that the longer human babies nurse the healthier they are.
We all know about the medical benefits of nursing, which include reduced allergies, higher IQ, protection against diseases (including ear infections, respiratory and gastrointestinal problems), better speech development, possible delayed menstruation in the mother, continued weight loss in the mother, and protection against ovarian and other forms of cancer.
Today the majority of American mothers decide to try breastfeeding. In 2000, about 68 percent of mothers initiated breastfeeding.
But most of these same moms return from the hospital laden with formula samples and coupons, and, despite the fact that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that women continue breastfeeding for at least 12 months, the vast majority of American women stop nursing before their infant is six months old.
When my mom decided to breastfeed her first baby, the nurse in the hospital disapproved, suggesting she give my newborn brother formula and bottles of water.
“Calves drink cow milk, lambs drink sheep milk,” my mother (who’s a biologist) told the nurse, “my infant’s going to drink human milk.”
It seems hard to believe that my mother would have had to defend her choice to the medical establishment since the pendulum has swung the other way and today women say they feel social pressure to breastfeed.
But although nursing small babies has become accepted—even expected—women who nurse their babies past infancy and those who are breastfeeding past three often feel they will be stigmatized and they tend to keep it secret.
Two of my adult friends remember being nursed.
They’re both well-adjusted, happy, healthy adults who have children of their own and sweet memories of childhood.
When dinner’s almost over, my son climbs onto my lap and leans back into me, tilting his head upward so our eyes meet, his are hazel with specks of green.
“Mommy, can I have some nummies?” he asks, patting my cheek with his tiny hand.
“Pajamas first,” I tell him. He giggles, wiggles off my lap, and runs to get ready for bed.
Stay with it
Breastfeeding can be hard at first.
You’re not thinking about breastfeeding past three, you’re just thinking about right now, and the next feeding.
Stay with it.
Don’t give up.
Take it one day at a time.
Don’t think about breastfeeding past today, past tomorrow.
Don’t think about breastfeeding past three.
One day at a time and soon you’ll be breastfeeding a toddler.
Then you’ll be breastfeeding past three.
And before you know it, your tiny breastfed baby will be all grown up, taller than you, feisty and independent.
And that healthy, strong, well-adjusted young person will benefit her whole life from having been breastfed past three.
Post first published: October 30, 2008
Updated: July 12, 2019