He’s Not Still Nursing, Is He? The Joys of Breastfeeding Past Three

Tough guy Etani who nursed well past three

Tough guy Etani living in West Africa, who nursed well past three

This week we’ve been talking about extended breastfeeding at Mothering Outside the Lines. (At least I hope we have. I scheduled these posts in advance and I’m actually across the country conducting interviews for the book I’m writing. I made the bold move of leaving my computer behind. So here’s to hoping the technology has been working.) On Monday we talked about nursing past one and on Wednesday I interviewed Vanessa Lowe about her radio documentary. For the third and final installment of this series, I’m posting a story I wrote, a version of which was first published in the Ashland Daily Tidings, about nursing my then three-year-old.

He’s Not Still Nursing, Is He?!

When we sat down to dinner, my girlfriend Humaiya 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. 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 when I mentioned 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% 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, 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 (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 so far the other way that 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. Helen, who weaned when she was four, remembers the deep sense of security, warmth, and closeness to her mother that nursing gave her. Richard, who grew up in Rwanda, a country with a high child mortality rate, nursed until he was five and was one of the healthiest children in his village. Today they are both well-adjusted, happy, healthy adults with children of their own and sweet memories of childhood.

When dinner is over and our guests leave, 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 happily, wiggles off my lap, and runs to get ready for bed.

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49 thoughts on “He’s Not Still Nursing, Is He? The Joys of Breastfeeding Past Three”

  1. My son is 22 months old. My husband’s stance was the classic “if he can ask for it, it’s time to stop.” My son can ask for it! Have we stopped? No. Some days I am tired and wish he would wean but in the end, I am doing what makes him content and what I know is good for him. Naysayers can just look the other way. They are my boobs, why should anyone else be worried about how long I breastfeed?
    .-= Melisa´s last blog ..28 weeks 5 days =-.

  2. Personally, I HATE the “if they can ask, they are too old” argument. What a great lesson to teach a child so young…once you are old and able enough to express your desires, that’s when we are going to strip it away from you!! Sorry, but I just never understood that. And kudos to you Melisa, for doing what you think is best for you and your child! Btw, my daughter is almost 28 months and doesn’t seem to be weaning anytime soon :)

  3. My son nursed until his 4th birthday much do the dismay of many family members and friends! Honestly though, he was signing “milk” around 4 months of age…so does that mean that because he could ask for it he shouldn’t be allowed it? Ridiculous!

  4. I nursed both of my children for 3.5 years each, consecutively. They are the smartest, most healthy children, I have ever witnessed. I read Kathy Dettwyler’s The Natural Age of Weaning, and it convinced me, along with all the other studies I’d read, that breast feeding, long past toddler age, was just fine. In fact, it really made me put the whole formula feeding idea into perspective, and realize that it’s a social experiment, gone terribly wrong!

  5. I have a friend like that too. She comes into my house and tells me that my child shouldn’t be nursing anymore. In.My.House. Last I looked, the mortgage was in mine and my husband’s name, we pay the taxes and bills… I nurse until they no longer want to nurse. For my first two it was 2 weeks before his second birthday and 2 months before her second birthday. My third, well she just turned two and I nurse her for nap time and she always asks me at bedtime if the boobie is tired. Yes, we co sleep too! -gasp- That occurs until the next child is born… =)

  6. Well I think all of this is wonderful. I nursed both of my girls until they were 14 months old and frankly I am sad that I didn’t continue longer. Looking back now I know I did them a great deed for nursing that long but good for you ladies for doing what you want to do. It isn’t anyone’s business but mom and baby’s. America is the only country who is obsessed with how long a baby nurses on their momma~ really there are so many more issues we should be discussing…like getting more moms to breastfeed period!

  7. I never planned how long I was going to nurse my son, I just knew I wanted to make it to 2 years since we don’t vaccinate. Well, he’s 3.5 and I’m still nursing him and his 7 week old sister.

  8. I always love reading stories of people nursing past infancy into tiddlywinks and beyond. Iwas lucky in that I had several roll models of women nursing their toddlers when my son was an infant.

    My son nursed until just before his 4th birthday. You can read our story at http://tinyurl.com/bfingjourney
    .-= Judy @ MommyNewsBlog´s last blog ..A Gift Of Milk =-.

  9. Babies ‘ask’ for milk. They don’t use words, but most definitely ask for it – from birth may I add. So, the fact that my child is now able to speak and communicate in words will not change anything. He’s just asking for it using another form of communication. That’s all.

    I never expected to still be nursing my 3.5 year old (and my now 1 year old at the same time). But I am. He asks for it when he wakes up & for bedtime (and at random times when he’s not well). It’s sooo easy. Why would I ever forcefully change that!
    .-= Nadia´s last blog ..Going Up =-.

  10. Why stop the series at past 3? My boy is going on six and will probably have to lose all his milk teeth and the ability to nurse before he would willingly give up his daily time with me.

  11. How does bf cause higher iq? I dont know anyone who is clever just because they were bf? I think it is the mothers choice whether to bf or not, I hate it when bf mothers put down mothers who formula feed. But i also dont see the problem with bf till your child wants to stop, i dont get what the problem with nip is either… but i dont have children yet so my opinion may change completely when i do.

  12. I am always in awe at the things I hear in my area. I live in the south and we go to a church that has a mixture of cultures. EVERYTIME I chat with the middle aged to older black women and we get on the subject of nursing they always brag about their own children nursing till 3 or 4. I would have considered it a coincidence I’d it hadn’t happened well over 5 or 6 times. I believe when the medical field started hospitalizing birth and all the white women started going to hospitals to birth, the poorer black people stayed at home and kept midwifery alive and thus missed the “social changes” brought about by the medicalization of maternity including the introduction of breastmilk substitutes. It has only been since midwifery licensure and Medicaid that practically everyone goes to hospitals to give birth, hence the dying off of the old ways. It is slowly coming back, but for some of us it never left.

  13. I had to educate one of my mother’s friends at Thanksgiving who was simply appalled that I was still nursing. My son is just over 27 months old. She just wasn’t aware of all the benefits to him, and to me. I think you’ve nailed it – it wasn’t the social norm for their generation and so now it’s wrong. My own mother wished she had nursed me more than the two weeks she did. In 1970, I’m sure the support just wasn’t there. She supports me and no longer shows surprise when she learns we’re still at it. My son nurses in the morning and at bedtime, and also at nap time on the weekends. Plus overly tired, just not feeling good times too. I can only hope he has fond memories of it later. I know I will cherish the time and bond it has created between us for the rest of my life.

  14. Just because a women chooses a hospital birth doesnt mean she wont breastfeed? And women gave birth at home back then because they didnt have a choice, just like bf is easier if you cant afford formula. Many women feel much safer and more comfortable giving birth in hospital for many reasons. (I personally dont believe birth belongs in hospital either unless their are problems)

  15. It’s not that breastfed children are smarter than formula fed children, but breastfed children are able to live up to their natural IQ potential. The human milk meets exactly what their physical requirements are during development in a way that generally boosts them a few IQ points. But if Susie-Formula Fed baby was going to be waaaaay smarter than Ben-Breastfed baby she still will be.. Ben just closed the gap a touch! 😉

  16. My daughter will be 5 in two weeks and still nurses at least 4x per week. NEVER in a million years did I expect to be still nursing a toddler, let alone a preschooler. Yet here we are, lol.

  17. My daughter is 32 months old right now and still asks for milk more as often as a tiny nugget would ask for it, although I don’t give in all the time. I still nurse her 3 times a day, sometimes more, sometimes less. I’ve recently noticed that people don’t acknowledge when I say I’m still breastfeeding, I guess they have nothing nice to say? lol

    I don’t get dirty looks to my face as often anymore, or sneaky little comments, because the people I talk to now know we’re past that “isn’t she too old” stage. People hound mothers now at 6 months to wean! It’s crazy talk.

    I laughed when I read how your mother talked to the nurse, it’s true though. Cow’s drink cow’s milk ( a shout out to the pink video where she has women pumping milk for a calf), and my baby does drink human milk. I see nothing wrong with this, it’s a nice relaxing time for both me and her. Nothing can fix her ouchie boo boo better, or hold her over for food time(or if it was food she doesn’t like), it still helps put her to bed like nobody’s business, helps her when she’s feeling anxious or overwhelmed.

    I never ever thought I would care this much about breastfeeding, until I had my baby. I never thought I would have to fight this hard to help normalize something that was normal. I also never thought I would still be breastfeeding my almost 3 year old. But anyone who has kids knows how fast time goes by. Honestly, 3 seems like no time at all, plus there are still children having bottles at that age, and it’s not as taboo, since it’s not connected to a “sexual” part of our bodies. I’m not anti bottle feeding, families do what they decided is best for them, and they’re the ones doing it not me, so I feel the same way about what I do, and think my choices should be respected.

    hahah sorry I’m cutting this off, t his has gone way past what I originally meant to write. Can you tell I’m needing some adult chat 😛

    Happy Holidays everyone
    .-= Avery´s last blog ..Rickis 40 off last ticketed price =-.

  18. I breastfed my first daughter for 3 weeks. I breastfed my 2nd for 38 months. I had wanted to breastfeed the first for 6-12 months. The 2nd I wanted to breastfeed a year (I felt a little weird about doing it longer). Then I got used to the idea of BFing till 2 years old by being around other moms who were nursing toddlers. Once we got to 2 I couldn’t even fathom going through all the hassle and heartbreak of weaning her and listening to her scream for boo boos. In then I told myself, “As long as she’s done by the time she starts Kindergarten, that’s ok with me”! I now have a month old son and am hoping he’s not an early weaner since he’s my last baby!

    The other one I hear as much as “If they can ask for it………” is “When they get teeth, it’s time to stop”. Well, some babies are BORN with teeth. What then? My month old seems like he is teething although it seems kind of early. I am dreading it if he is because i can’t really teach a 3 month old not to bite, but I’ll just keep on keeping on.

    As a peer counselor I have heard so many ladies who’ve gotten to 8, 9 or 10 months say, “I don’t know how long I can do it now cause he/she just got his/her first tooth”. I tell them I breastfed a kid with a full set and I’m still the proud owner of a full pair of nipples!

  19. My son had 2 teeth come out when he was 4 months old and it never even crossed my mind to wean him just because he had teeth. He had 8 teeth by the time he was 7 months old. No issues. Sure, he’s tried biting down a little, especially when his gums were sore. But, I tried a few simple things (like unlatching-relatching, or changing positions) and all was good.

    So, yea, I don’t get the whole “he has teeth so I need to wean” point. I mean, if you want to wean just do… but don’t use ‘teeth’ as an excuse.
    .-= Nadia´s last blog ..Going Up =-.

  20. Very well said. I nursed my first till she was just over 3, my second till he was 29 months, and am currently nursing my 13 month old. My family was a bit aghast that I was still breastfeeding a 3 year old when my second was born. They tandem nursed for about 2 months, which was also something no one really understood. But it works for us. Weaning was not difficult or stressful for either of them…they were ready and so it just kind of happened. In fact, I can’t say I really remember the actual “last” time either child nursed, because it became less and less frequent until one day I realized that they hadn’t nursed for a long time! With #3, which is most likely my last child, I will do the same thing, but in my experience we’ve still got at least 18 months or so of nursing time left. He loves his “yum yum”!

  21. All my kids asked fro milk from about 1 month of age. No they didn’t use words, but they let me know they wanted to nurse. My second and third child were signing for mil by 10 months. Does that mean I should have weened them then? My second child nursed until he was 30 months. My baby is 22 months and still nursing strong. I am in no more ready for her to stop than she is. She makes me slow down and relax. I love her falling asleep while nursing. I don’t so much like the sleeping latched on all night long, but we are working on that.

  22. I’m nursing my 4 month old and loving it, hope to be able to continue for as long as she wants… But I’m curious, how do you keep your supply up when your child is only nursing once or twice a day, or even once or twice a week? And if you work full-time, like I do, when do you stop pumping?

  23. I just wanted to say that I admire each and every one of you breastfeeding your babies AND toddlers/pre-schoolers! I wanted to BF so bad but wasn’t able to. I tried for 6 weeks (pumped mainly) and the moat I got DAILY was an ounce to an ounce and a half. I am a single mom and finally just gave up – the stress was just making things worse. DD is 29 months old and I still find myself mourning that I couldn’t BF, especially since I’m not sure I will have any more children :( I just keep telling myself that for 6 weeks, DD at least got an ounce of breastmilk a day!

    Happy Holidays!

  24. At the last breastfeeding support group meeting I attended, one of the brand new moms put it very nicely. “So, once my baby can ask for what he wants, that means he can’t have it? That’s ridiculous.” We spend months learning to understand our babies, and when they can tell us what they need, they should be rewarded for it.

    Honestly, how many of us as adults have suffered because we learned not to ask for what we needed? We want our babies to grow up confidently expecting their needs to be met by other people: parents, grandparents, older siblings, etc. Not being able to honestly ask people who are close to us to meet our needs, or to expect the need to be denied because we ask is downright unhealthy.

  25. Ysobella – Hospital culture does a lot, both acknowledged and unacknowledged, to influence whether or not a mother breastfeeds and how much. Mothers definitely do choose to breastfeed when they give birth in hospitals, as most do in the US, but it can make it more difficult. You may want to read about the Baby-Friendly Hospital Initiative: http://www.babyfriendlyusa.org/eng/index.html

    Hospital births can complicate breastfeeding for many reasons, not the least of which: epidurals (giving of large amounts of IV fluid cause swelling all over the body, including in the breasts, which can make latching more difficult; drugs making baby sleepier and thus less able to latch well); lack of support from hospital staff; policies encouraging supplementation when it’s often unnecessary; free formula (which absolutely does impact breastfeeding rates, both in the hospital and after returning home, there are studies documenting this); and lack of understanding of what is needed to get breastfeeding off to a good start both on the staff’s part and the woman’s part.

  26. Be open to your instincts as you get closer to a year, rather than accepting the arbitrary dates given by our culture. I hadn’t planned to nurse much past 12mo or so – or at least nor more than a time or two per day. But by nursing past 12mo at least 3-4x/day, I don’t have to try to get my son to take cow’s milk (as some recommend). Since he hates most dairy and I dislike the idea of carrying around more sippy cups, this works for us!

    BTW, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends 12mo OR as desired by both mother and child for breastfeeding duration. The World Health Organization recommends 24mo OR MORE of breastfeeding for optimal health. So despite American culture having this idea that something magical happens at 12mo meaning that you should stop breastfeeding, that is actually not in step with even conservative recommendations from the AAP!

  27. Your breasts are amazing in that they will normally generate the amount of milk your child needs – supply and demand. That is why, after the first few months of nursing, you no longer get overly engorged – your milk supply has regulated to the amount that your child is nursing. If your child, as they get older, nurses primarily in the evening, then that will be the time where you produce the most milk. As long as you nurse on demand, you normally will not have to worry about keeping your supply up.

  28. If you are pumping, it may be harder to keep your supply going. A friend of mine only nursed her child to 1 year, but had so much breast milk stored up, she was able to continue giving her child breast milk until he was 18 months – he continued to reap the benefits. Just keep up the good work as long as you can, and nurse as often as you can when you are at home.

  29. My son nursed until his fourth birthday,and it drove my mother nuts!(an added bonus:) She used to say”if you dont stop soon he is going to REMEMBER it”My response?What a wonderful memory of being warm,secure,and comforted by his mommy!

  30. My mom breastfed all of her 4 children. There are age gaps of 14, 11, and 8 years between us and my youngest brother. When his third word was “nurse”, we all thought it was strange that he could ask for nursing. My mom continued anyway, but I remember making fun (but at the same time) thinking it was cute how he would say, “nurse, nurse”. I think people who are not exposed to it find it strange for that very reason. The more people talk about/show it being done the more normalized it will become.

    I am now nursing my 15 mo. old and hope to do so until she weans herself. I try my best to find times when it is appropriate to mention that I still nurse in conversation. Only once have I gotten any sort of strange shock.

  31. I nursed my four children. My first two for two years, my third for 3 1/2 years – weaned because I was pregnant. My fourth child nursed until 5 years old. I was going to wean her when she started pre-k. Well, she started getting sick being around other children at school and she cried when I kept her home. So, I decided I was going to continue nursing until school ended. My Husband made a comment – she’s probably the only pre-k still nursing. The security of nursing her kept her healthy and kept me happy because she liked going to school. She spent more time at school and less time at the Doctor’s office.

  32. As with many matters parenting related, it’s really better for people to keep their opinions — often judgments, really — to themselves, unless specifically asked for advice or comment. So much of what we do is a personal choice based on a host of factors others may not be privvy to.

    If more people of all parenting persuasions could see that, moms (and dads) might have an easier time of it.
    .-= sarah henry´s last blog ..John Scharffenberger- From Wine and Chocolate to Tofu =-.

  33. I’m loving the discussion you started here on this important topic, I bf my first child until six months. He stopped, not I. We lived in France and he preferred “petit suisse,” a soft cheese dessert like yo baby. He’s quite a healthy man now. My second child I nursed for 13 months. I could have nursed her forever, but got German measles and had to stop. My third child did not like nursing. I tried my best, but I was the only one enjoying it, so I nursed her to four months and gave up. My point? Every mother/baby relationship is different. I remember getting looks in France when I was nursing. It really upset some people, something I could never understand. There is nothing more natural than a mother nursing her child … PS. My son also started solid food earlier and had cereal in a bottle before bed once he indicated he did not want any more of my milk.
    .-= Alexandra´s last blog ..Dreaming of Wellfleet =-.

  34. I am breastfeeding my four and a half year old (5 in February) once a day at bedtime, and any time I broach the subject of weaning she gets very upset. I am also nursing her 20-month old brother, and am willing to follow his lead re: weaning. I never, ever expected it to continue this long, but can honestly say that I have just ‘gone with the flow’ on this issue, something that hasn’t come easily to me in other areas of my life. Absolutely no regrets.

  35. I am breastfeeding my ,almost, 3 year old son, and reading all of your comments is encouraging. I never planned to hang in there this long. My husband is a little disturbed about this issue,and keeps telling my son, that he is too old. His son has no comment, other then ingnoring his dad on this issue. I tried to wean, but meet tearful and loud resistance. My gut tells me then to let him pick the time, and not to “cave” under external and social pressure.

    So my son connects with me at bedtime, and when he is sick, or got hurt. He does happen to be a very well spoken toddler, with great social skills, and he amazes everyone that meets him, with his sense of humor and maturity. I will be standing my ground. Thank you for sharing.

  36. I was at a client and one of the account people had her door closed (presumably to express) with a sign that read: “Please do not disturb. I am fulfilling my motherhood duties.” I thought it was just great!

  37. I am still nursing my 3 1/2 year old, 2X/day. She is uncannily healthy; not sure if it’s related.

    I recently posted something on facebook that my daughter said about nursing that I thought was funny. I was surprised at some responses, especially people suggesting that if she can talk about nursing it’s time to transition. Funny, how strongly people feel about this issue.
    .-= 6512 and growing´s last blog ..Snow on the homestead =-.

  38. I loved the close relationships I had nursing my 3 girls. I nursed my first daughter 2yrs, while pregnant with my second. When she was born I nursed her for 4 yrs, then 8 yrs later I had my third daughter and nursed her for 5 yrs. Even at 5 we still enjoyed our nursing time and continued the family bed. My children are all older now. My eldest is nursing her daughter at 22 months and sharing her bed. It is a joy to see the loving mother daughter relationships in the next generation. I love being a grandma too.

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