As my son's first birthday looms, I've been been thinking a lot about how excited I am to be heading into the "second stage" of breastfeeding. Now that he's not only eating, but heartily enjoying, all solid foods, it's no longer necessary to pump at work, and he's so interested in the world around him that nursing is no longer the only way to comfort him. In fact, the older he gets, the more tricks I've needed to keep up my sleeve in order to calm him down, get him to sleep, or keep him busy. As happy as I am that breastfeeding is now so simple and "easy," I also miss the early months when I could count on a breast to soothe his cries or put him to sleep. And, as happy as I am to welcome a little more freedom, I am equally frustrated by the waning support an extended breastfeeding (EBF) relationship gets--from family members, friends, and the general public.
Anyone who's ever breastfed past six months, in public, or at all, will tell you they've been asked "How long are you going to keep breastfeeding?" This question has a negative connotation by its very nature, and often leaves even the most committed moms feeling at the very best, angry or annoyed--and at the worst, somehow ashamed of their choice to feed their baby what nature intended. Because somehow, even well into the second decade of the 21st century, breastfeeding is not yet seen as the default choice--the expected choice.
While I have seen a shift in attitudes in the five years since I first breastfed my daughter, it is still unsettling how little the general public--including moms still breastfeeding their under-one-year-olds--knows about the benefits and ease of breastfeeding beyond that first year, aka "you're STILL nursing?!?"
When my daughter was born, I knew almost from the beginning that I wouldn't be rushing to wean her from the breast just because she "could" drink other milk. After it took us nearly four months to establish a comfortable breastfeeding relationship due to oversupply, hyperactive letdown, plugged ducts, mastitis, and the general awkwardness and lack of knowledge that many first-time moms have with breastfeeding, I was convinced I would let the kid nurse until she was ready to stop, dammit! Once she'd turned one, I had a few fleeting thoughts of regret that I hadn't capitalized on the "she doesn't know any better, and if she does, at least she can't verbalize it" time for weaning (aka around one year of age), because the older she got, the more adamant she was about needing to nurse. Granted, the older she got, the more I was able to request that she only nurse in the privacy of our own home, and then only at designated times (first thing in the morning, before/after a nap, before bed, in the middle of the night). I'd be lying if I didn't admit to a few anxious nights sitting up late reading Mothering Your Nursing Toddler and How Weaning Happens, looking for clues as to how to gently suggest to my approaching-two-year-old that maybe she didn't need to nurse anymore.
The funny thing was, the more I read, the more convinced I was of the negative effects forceful weaning might have, not just on my daughter, but on myself as well. While I was somewhat skeptical about my comfort level with breastfeeding a four-year-old, I knew if I couldn't positively reinforce my daughter's own desire to wean earlier, then I would nurse a four-year-old. By the time my daughter turned two, she was only nursing once a day, for a few minutes, first thing in the morning--a nice, comforting snuggle in Mommy and Daddy's bed before setting off on another day of joyously independent exploration and play. The day we moved into our new house was the last day my daughter nursed, and it was a happy parting for both of us.
When our son was born, I wondered what my daughter, would think about my nursing relationship with him. The true test of how "successfully" she weaned was coming, and I just hoped the outcome was positive. At first, she expressed no remorse that she wasn't the one being nursed; in fact, she was ecstatic to copy my behaviors by "nursing" her own baby dolls and carrying them around in makeshift slings. Then, gradually, she started regressing. First, she wanted to be "wrapped up like a baby"--so we swaddled her in a blanket and pretended to rock her to sleep. Then, she wanted to pretend to drink out of a bottle. Finally, one day, she said it: "I really wish I could have ba [breast milk]."
Luckily, a gentle reminder that breast milk is for babies was all it took for her to happily return to playing with her dolls. Later that week, she pressed the issue again when she stated how much she missed being able to nurse. I contemplated telling her she could, if she wanted to...but I could tell from the look in her eye (playful, coy) that she was just testing me. Instead, I swooped her onto my lap in a cradle hold and rocked her back and forth, cooing in her ear, "you'll always be my baby, my baby..."
She giggled, tolerating me for a minute (and reveling in every minute, I'm sure), then pushed off my lap and went on her merry way. Some days, it's hard to imagine she'll be in kindergarten in the fall...others, it seems she's just about ready for high school. Although sometimes the days were slow to pass, the years have flown past in an instant. And since our son is most likely the last child we'll have, I'll count myself lucky to get to enjoy an extended breastfeeding relationship with him, no matter what the critics may have to say about it.