My friend Meagan Francis just started a blog about her 5th pregnancy. She’s the mother of four boys and an excellent writer and her most recent post is about boob changes, which got me thinking about how, when I was pregnant with my oldest daughter I didn’t read anything about breastfeeding.
I knew I wanted to nurse but, unlike every other aspect of pregnancy, I didn’t want to know about it, think about it, hear about it.
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 turned out to be much more difficult than I imagined and a few days post partum I ended up with a painful breast infection. But I managed to nurse my daughter, who is now nine years old.
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 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 am fonder of that article than of almost any I have written since. More recently, I wrote an article about nursing my son for a column in the Ashland Daily Tidings.
I’ll post it here:
When we sat down to lunch this afternoon, my girlfriend Humaiya, also the mother of three children, marveled at my son Etani, 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.”
Etani turned three in October and he nurses before his mid-day nap and at bedtime. I sometimes 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 is 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 nursing. 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 is anything empirically wrong with it.
In fact, myriad scientific studies suggest that the longer human babies nurse the healthier they become. 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 women 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 child, the nurse in the hospital disapproved, suggesting she give her newborn formula and bottles of water. “Calves drink cow milk, lambs drink sheep milk,” my mother (who is a biologist) told the nurse, “my infant is 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 often feel social pressure to breastfeed. But although nursing small babies has become accepted, even expected, women who nurse their babies past infancy often feel they will be stigmatized and they tend to keep it secret.
Two of my adult friends remember being nursed. They are both well-adjusted, happy, healthy adults who have children of their own and sweet memories of childhood.
When dinner is 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 in them. “Mommy, can I have some nummies?” he asks, patting my cheek with his tiny hand. “Pajamas first,” I tell him. He giggles happily, wiggles off my lap, and runs to get ready for bed.