August 1-7 is World Breastfeeding Week when we celebrate breastfeeding mothers and children everywhere. As I was thinking about what to write in celebration of World Breastfeeding Week, I realized that I have a major breastfeeding milestone coming up. Kay will be celebrating her second birthday next week, and that day will also mark two years of successful breastfeeding for us. From the seemingly never ending newborn feedings to toddler gymnastics, it really has been an amazing journey!
Full-term breastfeeding is not the norm yet in North America, but as we continue to learn more about the benefits of breast milk and full-term breastfeeding, I hope that our breastfeeding culture and public perception will catch up with other parts of the world and normalize breastfeeding again. Health Canada and the World Health Organization recommend breastfeeding for up to two years and beyond.
Anthropologist Katherine Dettwyler’s research suggests that the natural duration of breastfeeding is somewhere between 2.5 to 7 years. Cross-cultural studies suggest that children typically self-wean between somewhere between 3 and 5 years, and studies of non-industrialized societies around the world prior to the widespread marketing of formula give an average age of weaning of about 2.8 years. Clearly, weaning at 6 months or even one year is premature.
Despite all that we know about the benefits of full-term breastfeeding, many people don’t know anyone who nursed past a year. Except they probably do. Surveys of breastfeeding moms show that there are a lot more of us out there than you probably realize, but most women don’t advertise they’re still nursing their toddlers. Since toddlers don’t need to nurse all the time, they usually only nurse at home and aren’t as visible as nursing infants. Either way, many people have no idea what it’s like to nurse a toddler. Having done it twice (older sis self-weaned at 34 months), I thought I’d share a little bit about what it’s been like for us.
Just like everything else about parenting, our nursing relationship has changed and evolved as Kay has grown. At the very beginning, she nursed on demand. And for us, that meant ALL THE TIME. There were days it seemed like I would never get off the couch. But she soon learned to become more “efficient” at feeding, and I learned to read her cues. We breastfed exclusively for six months at which point I gradually introduced solid foods into her diet.
To state the obvious, nursing a toddler is different from nursing an infant. Kay eats. A lot. She loves chicken, steak, sweet potatoes, rice, broccoli, carrots, peas, grape tomatoes, California rolls, and any kind of fruit. Breast milk isn’t her main source of food any more, but it does still supplement her diet. She often asks to nurse after meals (like it’s dessert!). Instead of basic sustenance, breast milk now provides her with an immune boost every time she nurses. And when she does get a cold, nursing helps her feel better and picks up the nutritional slack when she’s too sick to have much of an appetite.
Toddlers are distractible. They want to see every single thing that’s going on, even if they’re latched on at that particular moment. Ouch! Unlike when she was younger, nursing rarely happens when we’re out and about now. There’s too much to see, too much to do. She’s active all the time, and nursing is no exception. Currently, Kay thinks it’s the funniest thing to stick her feet up my shirt or in my face while she’s nursing. Those little toes are so kissable though! Other times she gently pats my face and chest as if to say, “I love you.”
We rarely nurse for 20, 15, or even 10 minutes like we used to. Except when she’s nursing to sleep, our breastfeeding sessions are more like five minutes. Kay uses nursing like a check in when she’s had a busy day or for comfort when she gets hurt. Her two year molars are coming in right now, and she’s definitely nursing more often lately to cope. On the whole, I much prefer that over constant fussing or crying from the pain of teething.
After all this time, we’re pretty much experts at this breastfeeding “dance”. We’ve nursed lying down, standing up, half asleep, in the car, at the mall, on the playground, in the bathtub, wherever or whenever she needed it. We still nurse to nap and sleep, and that’s the one thing I’d like to work on right now. It would be so nice to let someone else put her to sleep for a change so hubs and I could stay out late or even have a night away!
Breastfeeding is a valuable tool in my mothering toolbox, like kisses and hugs, reading stories, massage, babywearing, playing, tickles, and all the other things that mothers do. I did the math, and between my two girls, I’ve been nursing for the last four and a half years. Part of me feels like it’s been long enough, and the rest of me knows I’ll miss it when we’re done. At this point, I’m in no hurry to rush it. I have two happy, healthy, confident little girls so clearly I’m doing something right!