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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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Tags: breastfeeding a 3-year-old, extended breastfeeding, extended nursing, nursing past three

Comments (49)

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 =-.
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 :)
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!
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!
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... =)
like infants don't ask for it?? Give me a break! .-= jeni´s last blog ..Josie Jumps! =-.
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!
On a separate but somewhat related note: Since my husband is old enough, if he asks for boobie should I deny him too? =) Just thought I'd throw that out there... .-= Diana Keller´s last blog ..SageLetterpress is back! =-.
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.
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 =-.
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 =-.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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! ;-)
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.
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 :-P Happy Holidays everyone .-= Avery´s last blog ..Rickis 40 off last ticketed price =-.
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!
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