Nursing a Toddler Is Misunderstood

Just over four years ago I was anxiously waiting on my first baby to arrive. A type A firstborn, I spent much of my pregnancy researching all things baby and wanted to do what was very best for her more than anything in the world. After all of my reading and Bradley classes, I believed that started with an unmedicated birth followed by immediate skin to skin and breastfeeding. I read the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended nursing for the first year of life and the World Health Organization said up to two years and beyond was beneficial. I thought I knew everything I needed to know.

But, if you tried to convince me I would still be nursing that baby just before her fourth birthday, I would have scrunched up my face in disgust.

You see, in all of my research, I never came across the idea of nursing an older toddler. Not that I remember, anyway. My familiarity of it was limited to jokes from the movie, Grownups. If you tried to tell me then that I would be the mom breastfeeding her preschool-age child, I would have argued with you. Because people didn’t really do that, right? How would you even get a child that age to sit still and nurse? I had never seen it, and I worked with toddlers for years through church and nannying. And even if I had encountered it, I wouldn’t have understood. I would have been judgmental. I would have said something like, “When I’m a mom, I will never…”

But then I had my baby.

And when I went to breastfeed, it wasn’t easy. Turns out all of those hours googling did nothing to prepare me for bleeding nipples, zero sleep, and constant screaming. I was not at all ready to have to fight with a infant who constantly thrashed and arched her back to make nursing work for the first six months. I didn’t know what to do when she wasn’t gaining weight, went weeks without pooping, but was biting at my breast constantly. Turns out I wasn’t prepared at all.

So by the time we finally found our breastfeeding groove, I was in the depths of severe postpartum anxiety. In trying to swim out I had to take off every heavy bit of “When I’m a mother, I will never do that,” that society had shaped for me. I slept with my baby through nights and naps. I picked her up every time she cried. I let her nurse whenever she wanted, day and night. I did everything I could to fulfill her needs because I felt like I had failed at meeting her most basic need for food for the first six months of her life.

And at some point, we turned a corner. She screamed less, smiled more, received comments on what a happy child she was in every public place we went. She wanted to be held less and explore more independently. She stayed asleep when I got up to pee. Her needs became met needs, and the list shortened.

But, she continued asking to nurse a couple of times a day. And then, just to fall asleep for nap and bedtime. And then she dropped her nap and only asked at night. The list shortened again.

And suddenly, she was approaching four. It all went so quickly, just like they say it does. At what point was it supposed to become disgusting to me? At what point was I supposed to look at her and think, “You are no longer my baby who needs me, I am taking this from you.” I am not sure, because even though there were plenty of hard days where, honestly, I tried to cave to the norms culture asks of us, I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t look at my baby who not that long ago was screaming to get enough of my milk to survive and take the last little bits of it from her before she was ready.

And then one night two months ago she said she was done. Just like that. “Mama, I don’t need your milk anymore. I am a big girl now. Just baby sister can nurse.”

And for a brief moment, it was me who wasn’t ready. I could physically feel that list that once seemed so long and heavy shortening and I heard myself say, “Okay, baby. Can we nurse just one more time tomorrow night? I will plan your big girl party.”

I wanted to drink in every bit of that last nurse together, and then celebrate her big step the next day. Not because I am a pervert or because I want to keep my children immature, but because we did it. We fought, and we won. I worked harder than I ever had on anything else in my whole life, and I had everything to show for it in the form of a self-assured little girl growing onto bigger things than finding comfort at my breast. She had a need, and it was met. My job here, in this area of mothering, was done.

So, no—nursing an older toddler is not gross. I was wrong. I did not forever traumatize her, violate her, force her to breastfeed instead of doing other normal toddler activities, or any of the other misconceptions out there. As she grew older, I set firm but gentle boundaries so I could remain comfortable, but I mostly focused on meeting her needs. Because even though the trauma of her first year messed me up in a lot of ways for quite a while, it taught me to let go of everything else and listen to my baby. We as humans, infant or adult, no longer ask for fulfilled requests.

But, I am aware of the disgust. I know how weird this may look to you—I once thought that, too. “People don’t actually do that, do they?” Well, yes, many of us do. Sadly, most of us are closet nursers once our children reach a certain age. We are aware it is no longer seen as sweet to talk about breastfeeding our three year olds, even though we know the feeling of their weight relaxing in our laps as they calm out of an overtired meltdown. We’ve memorized their eyelash dance as they find sleep against our bodies, and we’ve been verbally thanked for our milk and our love. We should be able to talk about these things with one another, which is why I’m writing this. I realize how unlikely it is that I will convince anyone who is not nursing that what we do is completely natural, but if I can remind another mama she is not alone in this season, then that is more than enough.

To natural term we go <3