Breastfeeding can be a polarizing topic. Women who breastfeed sometimes like to shout loud and proud about the benefits of breastfeeding and tout it as the best way to feed a baby. Then there’s the equally passionate women who formula feed and are quick to defend their decision. As far as I can see, there really is no right answer as to what’s best for a baby. Only a right answer as to what’s best for your baby.
I’m writing this to tell my story, not to preach about breastfeeding. I was formula fed as a baby, as were both of my brothers. I don’t think my mom is less of a woman for not breastfeeding, and we all grew up strong and healthy. There are many factors that go into a decision about how you’ll feed your baby. I’m telling my story of extended breastfeeding only to help someone who might be thinking about it and curious as to what it’s like.
It’s not an easy story for me to tell. In real life, I didn’t go around announcing that I was still breastfeeding past the age most people wean. Only my best friends knew, really. While breastfeeding has become much more socially acceptable, extended breastfeeding is another story. You tell people you’re breastfeeding your infant and you might get a smile and an “awww.” Tell someone you’re breastfeeding your toddler and you’re more likely to get a side eye and an “ewww.” I decided to do it anyway.Why I Chose Extended Breastfeeding
I have to go back to my first, Meghan, to explain why I decided to breastfeed for longer than one year. With Meghan, I thought I was going to wean her around her first birthday. At that time, “breastfeed for 6 months” was what most doctors recommended, so I figured that put me ahead of the game. I had also recently stopped drinking cow’s milk and really didn’t want Meghan to drink it, either. (That’s a whole different post, but to sum up my reasoning I don’t think milk that was designed to support and nourish a baby calf is appropriate for a baby human. We have very different needs and there’s a reason why our milk is not identical.) When I consulted with her pediatrician, I learned that she needed milk until 2 years of age because of brain development. Only breast milk or cow’s milk has adequate fat for proper brain development. At that point my decision was made to breastfeed until 2. (You can find all of Meghan’s breastfeeding stories on my Motherhood page.)
When Luke came around, I knew my goal was to breastfeed until 2. Again, this decision was based almost solely on wanting to avoid having my kids drink cow’s milk. I felt like since I could, I should provide him with the milk that is perfectly designed for a growing human. Breastfeeding Luke the first year wasn’t easy. He was milk-soy protein intolerant (MSPI) and sensitive to other food proteins as well. I had to cut out a lot of foods and ate a very limited diet. (You can read about his MSPI here.) There were definitely times I couldn’t imagine even breastfeeding him to his first birthday. Somehow, I just kept going.
When he turned 2, Tim started asking when I was going to wean him. With Meghan, I’d started the weaning process before her 2nd birthday, and she was weaned totally by 2. I knew I wanted to get pregnant and after having a miscarriage while breastfeeding when Meghan was 18 months, I wasn’t interesting in breastfeeding while pregnant again. It was physically painful and emotionally draining.
With Luke, however, I hadn’t even started the weaning process when he turned 2. His birthday is in December, and with the winter sick season upon us I thought, why not breastfeed through the winter?
One of the benefits of extended breastfeeding is increased immunity through antibodies passed on from mother to child. “Breastfeeding toddlers between the ages of one and three have been found to have fewer illnesses, illnesses of shorter duration, and lower mortality rates.” (source)
I was entering new territory breastfeeding past two, but it had gotten much easier as I was able to eat a regular diet again and Luke loved it, so I didn’t see a reason to stop. I guess there were times I felt ready to be done with it, but most of the time I just enjoyed the time with Luke and didn’t look forward to the weaning process. Toddlers are so rambunctious, especially my boy Luke, so the times when he’d slow down and breastfeed were special.
Winter came and went and I still hadn’t started the weaning process. “He’s getting so big, when are you going to wean?” Tim would often ask. I kept putting it off. By this point, it wasn’t as much about the benefits or any other reason. It was mostly because Luke loved it and I knew weaning was going to be hard. It was no different from the mama who lets her toddler continue with a binky or bottle longer than necessary. I didn’t want to take away something he loved.
What Extended Breastfeeding is LikeEvery woman’s story is going to be different, but for me, breastfeeding toddlers was easier than breastfeeding infants. By the time Luke was one, he was on an easy routine of breastfeeding first thing in the morning, before his two naps, and before bed. There was occasions that he asked for it outside those times, but that was the exception, not the rule. At 18 months he dropped his second nap and then he naturally dropped that feeding and was down to three breastfeeding sessions a day.
After he turned two and became more vocal, it became more obvious that I was breastfeeding a toddler. When it was time to breastfeed, he’d point to one side and say, “I want that one.” After nursing for a bit, he’d pop off and say, “Switch sides.” Since I had stopped breastfeeding Meghan at two, I hadn’t experienced that as much with her. I won’t lie, it was a little strange breastfeeding a talking toddler, but it made me chuckle more than anything else.
Since Luke associated breastfeeding and going to bed, when he wanted milk outside of our normal times, he’d say, “It’s night-night time.” That was code for, “I want some milk, Mommy!” I really tried to keep our breastfeeding sessions to our regular routine as I didn’t want to be nursing him all day. I knew that would burn me out and three times a day was plenty. At times, however, I did breastfeed him more. Sometimes he just needed the comfort, and that’s fine.
Since Luke loved nursing and I nursed before nap time, putting him down for nap was a dream. He looked forward to nap time, whereas some toddlers fight it tooth and nail. If he was especially tired, he’d fall asleep nursing, but most of the time he didn’t. I just gave him a kiss, put him in his crib, and he’d turn over and go to sleep. Luckily, if I wasn’t home, he’d go down for nap or bedtime just fine without me, as well. But if I was home, there was no way he’d want anyone else putting him down for nap or bedtime.
As Luke got closer to three, he extended our breastfeeding sessions more and more. Bedtime started to take much longer, and I was growing weary. I knew I would be ready to be done when he turned three.
The Bittersweet Tale of Weaning my ToddlerLuke loved breastfeeding. If I’d let him lead the weaning process, I’m quite certain I would have been breastfeeding him while he was in kindergarten. He showed no signs of disinterest or slowing down. I knew, however, that I didn’t want to nurse him beyond three. So leading up to his third birthday, I started the process of weaning him.
The first session I dropped was the one first thing in the morning. This was fairly easy. Tim would go in to get him instead of me and just whisked him downstairs for breakfast.
After that morning session was gone, I waited a little while before dropping another session officially. During this time, however, we’d often go a whole day without any breastfeeding or only breastfeeding one time if I wasn’t home at nap time or bedtime.
One time, because I was out of town for a funeral and then weird scheduling, we went 4 days without breastfeeding. I waited to see if that was the end. I thought maybe it would be a natural end to breastfeeding. Nope. As soon as I was home during sleep time, he was asking for nursing. He wasn’t going to make weaning easy.
Next, I dropped the nap time session. I had to do this when Tim could be home for nap time and put him down for several days in a row. The first time I had to put him down for nap time without nursing was difficult. He didn’t understand–If Mommy was home, he nursed before nap. That’s just how it was. I still had a card to play, though, “We can nurse at bedtime.”
During this time, we were preparing Luke for what was coming. I told him that Mommy’s milk was almost gone and that when he turned three, it would be all gone. We talked about it a lot so we would be used to the idea.
Tim and I started taking turns putting Luke to bed, so we has only nursing at bedtime every other night. Most nights he’d say, “It’s Mommy’s turn to put me to bed.” He cried and cried when it was Daddy’s turn to put him down, but once they were in his room together reading stories, he was okay.
Once his third birthday came, we reminded him that he was three and that meant Mommy’s milk was all gone. At first I thought he was going to accept it easily, but soon realized that wasn’t the case. “But I’m not three yet. I’m still two,” was his response after thinking about it for a bit.
Bedtime was hard for a while. We were met with tears and Luke crying that he was still two. While I was ready to be done breastfeeding, I wasn’t ready for the heartache that came along with weaning my toddler.
It’s almost been two months now since he’s officially been weaned, and it’s gotten much easier. Once in a while he still says, “I’m not three yet, I’m still two,” as if to check and see if maybe, just maybe, Mommy will say okay.
While I didn’t set out to breastfeed Luke until three, I’m glad I did. I wish that he would have been more ready to wean when I was, but I can’t allow myself to feel guilty. Even though it’s hard for me, I’m happy to share this journey with others and hope it helps make the decision to try extended breastfeeding easier for someone.