(from the archives dated May 19 2009)
Sometimes I let myself think about what the other person must be thinking when I say that I still breastfeed my two and a half year old. A two year old looks so big, so independent. And since most people only have experience with babies that nurse as newborns or as 6 month olds, their idea of what “breastfeeding” means is very limited to a certain phase. A time consuming phase. A possibly painful phase. A phase of leaking, of engorgement, of panicking over low supply. Of diaper-counting, elimination diets, and night waking.
Nursing a two year old is very different. The parallel I always think of is that of picking your child up. Picking your child up when the child is an infant often means long periods of holding. You have to support the child’s head when the child is an infant. You have to carry them, hold them, and they want to be held constantly. A newborn does not sit on your hip or support his own weight when held. If someone stopped picking their child up when their child was 3 months old or 9 months old, they might look at someone with a two year old and say “You STILL pick the child up?” thinking about how difficult it must be to hold 36lbs of child. Thinking about how big and independent that two year old looks. Thinking about it through their own experience, where the “picking up” relationship ended very early when the child’s needs were very different. “But the child is strong now. Doesn’t it hurt when he punches you in the face when you pick him up?” they’ll ask, flashing back to the flailing newborn limbs.
With a two year old nursling, they imagine that the teeth bite just as the flailing limbs would hit. They imagine that the child nurses constantly, doesn’t consume food, and is intertwined with you as only a newborn can be.
Because that is what they have experienced.
But it’s not like that. The child nurses or doesn’t nurse. Accepts postponements (usually). Asks politely (usually) instead of wailing. The child seldom nurses for comfort anymore (at least my son), and usually only nurses a few times a day. My newborn son would nurse 8-12 times a day, or sometimes 15 times a day, and for long periods of time. 30 minutes, 40 minutes, and hour.. Two.. Nursing was a full time occupation some months.
A toddler doesn’t nurse that way. Even if he nurses frequently, it’s for shorter amounts of time. You can do other things when a toddler nurses because you’re not supporting all of their weight, you’re not focused on the latch, you’re not leaking and engorged. A nursing session may last 5 minutes, or it may last 3 minutes. But I can’t remember the last time that I nursed for 15 minutes or longer. I can’t remember the last time my son didn’t sleep through the night. I can’t remember the last time I was engorged, the last time I leaked. I can’t remember the last time he bit down while nursing.
Child-led weaning is gradual. Not only for the child, but for the mother. It goes the way all of childhood goes. Like sand through a sieve. Slowly. Feedings space out, disappear, the child separates and becomes independent. Weaning is a milestone that is reached slowly, not a sudden destination.
Nursing a two year old is very different from nursing a newborn. I imagine that nursing a three or four year old is different from nursing a two year old. Maybe I’ll find out what that’s like, or maybe my son will have weaned himself by then.
Whatever it is, I’m in no rush. I enjoyed nursing my infant, and I’m enjoying being here for my two year old. It’s not without its frustrations and embarrassments, but ultimately it’s worth it to witness this beautiful miracle of seeing my son toddle off to independence at his own darned pace.